The majority of federal and state dollars spent on Arizona anti-poverty programs go -- not to the unemployed -- but to college professors, home-healthcare nurses, child-care specialists, and other low-wage workers.
According to a new University of California, Berkeley study, 57 percent of the $6,596 million the federal government spent on the social safety net in Arizona between 2009 and 2011 went to working families. Fifty-one percent of the $1,335 million the state threw into the pot was claimed by the employed.
"There is a real cost to the states, the federal government, and taxpayers when jobs don't pay enough for people to provide for their families," said Ken Jacobs, chair of U.C. Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Jacobs found front-line fast food workers, who earn an average of $9.19 per hour, or $19,640 a year, were the most likely to rely on public assistance. Nationally, 52 percent received the Earned-Income Tax Credit, and/or enrolled in Medicaid, cash assistance, or food stamps.
Jacobs found, however, that workers in several unlikely sectors, including healthcare and education, are suffering, too. Forty-eight percent of home healthcare workers and 46 percent of child-care workers turned to the government for help between 2009 and 2011, according to the report. Among adjunct professors, 25 percent relied on welfare programs.
"Real wages have declined, middle income jobs have been hollowed out, and now we're seeing a real change in the demographics of low-wage workers," Jacobs told New Times. "They tend to be older and have more college education."
Some believe the solution is raising the minimum wage. Tens-of-thousands of people across the country are expected to turn out to call for increased wages this afternoon as part of the "Fight for $15" movement. Fight for $15 started as a protest of several hundred New York City fast-food workers in 2012, but has since spread to more than 200 cities. Other low-paid workers, including adjunct faculty and home healthcare nurses, are now joining in.
"This is not a problem that the market is going to correct on its own," Jacobs said. "There is a role for public policy in addressing a rise in low-wage work."
Others say improved education and technical training are the answers.
Dennis Hoffman, director of the L. William Seidman Research Institute at the Arizona State University school of business, argues that minimum-wage jobs, like flipping burgers, are not designed to support a family -- and they shouldn't be.
"Minimum-wage employment is transitional employment," Hoffman said. "It should be used as a bridge to acquire education and skills."
He's careful not to place blame solely on the workers' shoulders, though. The state is contributing to the problem, he said, by continually cutting the education budget. The Arizona Legislature slashed university and community college funding by $115 million in March.
Directly, this forces universities and colleges to cut back on well-paid, tenured-track positions for professors and rely more on adjunct faculty, who are sometimes paid as little as $1,397 per course. Indirectly, he said, it sends a signal to potential students and employers that Arizona doesn't value education.
"One of the biggest concerns of businesses that are contemplating moving to Arizona is: "Are there enough quality skilled workers?'" he said. "What does it say about us if we are putting money into prisons, but not into universities?"
Got a tip? Send it to: Elizabeth Stuart.