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Many Manufacturing Workers Don't Make Enough To Keep Off Public Assistance

UNIDENTIFIED #1: I think most people hate to think of themselves as middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED #2: You have what you need, but maybe not everything you want.

UNIDENTIFIED #1: We have a car, but we live in an apartment. That's middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED #2: If you add a boat, then you're not middle class anymore. That's what changes it right there.

UNIDENTIFIED #3: The middle class are families who are earning six figures.

UNIDENTIFIED #4: Thirty thousand, $35,000, probably.

UNIDENTIFIED #5: That means me. And that means I'm in trouble (laughter).


This is Hanging On, our series on the economic pressures on American life. There's a common refrain in political speeches, Republican and Democratic - bring back manufacturing jobs. These are the jobs that built the middle class in this country, they say. Revive those jobs. Save the middle class. But a recent report out of UC Berkeley's Labor Center shows that a number of current manufacturing workers make just a bit more than the minimum wage.

FULLADONNA WADE: My name is Philadonna Yvonne Wade (ph). I am 31, and I live in Lorain, Ohio.

WERTHEIMER: Wade found a manufacturing work through a temp agency. She helps build and ship axles. We asked her how much she makes.

YVONNE WADE: Nine dollars and 50 cents per hour. You know how people live paycheck to paycheck? I feel like - I don't know how I'm doing it, but I'm living with less than that.

WERTHEIMER: She said she'd need to make at least $15 an hour to support herself and her children. For now, government assistance programs help fill the gap.

YVONNE WADE: I get almost everything. I live in subsidized housing. And I receive energy assistance, food stamps and medical.

WERTHEIMER: Wade is not alone. A third of families of non-supervising manufacturing workers are enrolled in at least one public safety net program. Ken Jacobs is chair of UC Berkeley's Labor Center. He co-authored the study.

KEN JACOBS: We were looking at manufacturing production workers. These are the jobs that used to be a pathway into the middle class for people who didn't have a college education. If we go back 20 years, the jobs paid greater than the median wage for all the occupations. Now 1 in 4 are paid less than $11.91 an hour.

WERTHEIMER: And they can't do this kind of work without aid programs of some kind?

JACOBS: Right. We found that just over a third, 34 percent of these manufacturing production workers in the U.S, themselves rely on a public assistance program, or one of their family members is enrolled. And the problem is much worse when we look at the growing number who are working through temporary staffing agencies. In 1989, 1 percent of manufacturing production workers were hired through a temp agency. Now it's is 1 out of 11. And for those...

WERTHEIMER: I was - I was very surprised to hear that. I mean, you think of manufacturing jobs as being skilled.

JACOBS: That's right, and for these workers who are hired that - for example, in assemblers and fabricators, if you're directly hired the median wage is a little over $15 an hour. But those who are hired through staffing agencies, the median wage is $10.88 an hour. So for those workers, their utilization of public assistance programs is 50 percent, the same as we find for fast-food workers.

WERTHEIMER: Where does that come from, that, all of a sudden, manufacturing is coming out of temporary agencies?

JACOBS: These tend to be jobs like assemblers and fabricators - that was the largest one. It is the - part of the lower-skilled part of the manufacturing chain. And manufacturers started using this, in part, to deal with unknown demand. When they have surges in demand, then they can bring people in. But it's - it's interesting. When we look at temp work overall in the United States, it actually peaked around the year 2000. But what we've seen in recent years is a big change in who makes up the temp workforce, much more blue-collar jobs - manufacturing jobs, warehouse jobs. And those jobs tend to pay much less than their counterparts who are directly hired.

WERTHEIMER: Are there still good jobs in manufacturing, the sort of gateway to the middle class good jobs?

JACOBS: There are still good jobs in manufacturing. What you find is a pretty big differential in different areas. As manufacturing jobs came back following the Great Recession, the jobs are more likely not to be union. They're paying lower wages. And that has been that ongoing trend. So we still have some good union jobs out there. And we have more and more jobs that pay these low wages.

WERTHEIMER: Ken Jacobs is chair of UC Berkeley's Labor Center. Thank you very much for talking to us.

JACOBS: Thank you.


WERTHEIMER: Our friends at All Things Considered are exploring what it means to be middle class in America today. This week, they're asking what happens when you earn a middle-class income in an upper-class town.

UNIDENTIFIED #3: You know, you walk in and either it's weed smoke or pee that you smell. You don't want to come home to the place that's your sanctuary. And you have to write this fat check every month.

WERTHEIMER: Finding affordable housing in New York City, this week on All Things Considered. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.