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

All working people—regardless of race, class, or gender—want jobs that allow them to support their families and live with dignity. But far too often, employers do not provide the wages, hours, or benefits that people need to achieve economic security and stability. This was true before the COVID-19 pandemic began and it remains true today—especially 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 women, and Black women—are overrepresented in these jobs across the United States.

It was the women working in these jobs—as restaurant servers and bartenders, fast food workers, hotel clerks, housekeeping cleaners, and staff in entertainment venues and retail stores—who were most likely to become unemployed in 2020, as restaurants and storefronts shuttered and travel came to a halt. And many others—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—found their work to be newly deemed essential but still undervalued, with decent pay and basic benefits out of reach.

While the American Rescue Plan Act and other federal pandemic relief measures provided critical support for struggling families and set the stage for a strong jobs recovery, they were temporary. Lawmakers did not make the permanent structural changes needed to address longstanding inequities or ensure widespread job quality. And in the face of the loss of federal supports, rising costs, depleted savings, and ongoing caregiving challenges, the modest wage gains spurred by a tight labor market have not been sufficient for many people working in low-paying jobs to achieve economic security.

Hard Work Is Not Enough: Women in Low-Paid Jobs examines who women in low-paid jobs are and how they were faring in 2021, the most recent year for which national data on poverty and income are available—with a focus on women of color and women supporting children, who face the highest risk of economic hardship. It confirms that in 2021, millions of women were still straining to pay their bills and support their families, despite their education, experience, and hard work in essential jobs. And it makes clear what a low unemployment rate often obscures: without structural reforms to enable all working people to thrive, having a job is no guarantee of having enough income to make ends meet.

The share of women working in the 40 lowest paying jobs is not a small one: more than one in six employed women in the United States works in a low-paid job. 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: NWLC calculations from U.S. Census Bureau, 2021 American Community Survey 1-year sample using IPUMS-USA. Respondents self-identify their sex as either male or female and self-identify their current or most recent occupation. Definitions of low-paid occupations vary; for this analysis, NWLC defines low-paid jobs as the 40 occupations with the lowest hourly median wages, according to U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), May 2021 National Occupational Employment & Wage Estimates.

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 2021, nearly 38 percent of women in low-paid jobs lived in or near poverty—and in states like Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and West Virginia, that share climbed above 45 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, as well as poverty and near-poverty rates for women working in low-paid jobs and for workers overall.