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When Hard Work Is Not Enough: Women in Low-Paid Jobs

All working people should be able to support themselves and their families. But far too often, employers do not provide the wages, hours, or benefits that people need to achieve economic security and stability. This is especially true for women, and for women of color most of all. Women represent nearly two-thirds of the workforce in low-paid jobs (defined here as the 40 lowest paying jobs). Women of every race—especially Latinas, Native American women, and Black women—are overrepresented in these jobs across the United States.

Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, millions of women working in low-paid jobs are on the front lines of the crisis. Women who have struggled to get by as restaurant servers and bartenders, fast food workers, hotel clerks, housekeeping cleaners, retail salespersons, nail salon workers, staff at theaters and other entertainment venues, and in other service sector positions face a high risk of losing their jobs altogether. And many others—including the personal care and home health aides caring for people managing illness in their homes, the cashiers staffing grocery stores, and the child care workers caring for the children of health care workers and first responders—find that their work is more essential than ever but no less undervalued, with decent pay and basic benefits still out of reach.

When Hard Work Is Not Enough: Women in Low-Paid Jobs examines who women in low-paid jobs are and how they were faring in 2018, the most recent year for which national data on poverty and income are available—and it finds that in a year in which by some measures our economy was booming, millions of women in low-paid jobs were facing severe economic hardship. In 2020, the rapid spread of the new coronavirus has dramatically shifted our economic landscape—and it is these women and their families who are likely to be hit first and hardest by the recession that follows.

The picture is the same across the country: in every state in the U.S., women are the majority—often the vast majority—of child care workers, home health aides and personal care aides, food service workers, and others performing underpaid and undervalued jobs. And in every state, women in these jobs struggle to make ends meet and support their families.

Source: National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) calculations based on 2018 American Community Survey using IPUMS. Definitions of “low-paid” jobs vary; this analysis focuses on the 40 lowest-paying jobs according to U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), May 2018 National Occupational Employment & Wage Estimates, because these jobs particularly illuminate women’s overrepresentation at the low end of the pay spectrum.

The share of women working in the 40 lowest paying jobs is not a small one: nearly one in five employed women in the United States works in a low-paid job, and only in the District of Columbia is the share of women workers in low-paid jobs lower than about one in six. In contrast, in almost every state, about one in ten—or fewer—employed men work in low-paid jobs.

For millions of women in low-paid jobs and their families, education and hard work is simply not enough to boost their incomes above the poverty line. And millions more live near poverty (defined here as household income below twice the federal poverty line), where a medical emergency, a car breakdown, or a few cut shifts can mean that families won’t have enough to pay for basics, like food, rent, utilities, or child care. Across the country in 2018, 42 percent of women in low-paid jobs lived in or near poverty—and in states like Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia, that share climbed above 50 percent.

Download Women in Low-Paid Jobs, State by State to view data for every state and the District of Columbia on:

  • Women’s share of the low-paid workforce and the workforce overall
  • Shares of all working women and men who work in low-paid jobs
  • Poverty and near-poverty rates for women working in low-paid jobs and for workers overall