Survey: 36 percent of U.S. “financially desperate” or barely getting by

Some 36 percent of all U.S. residents are either financially desperate – meaning they don’t earn enough to pay basic bills – or barely getting by, a new international survey says.

The study by the International Trades Union Congress, the world’s top global union federation, adds that 7 percent of U.S. respondents are financially desperate, but the proportion is higher among women, people aged 16-24 and those with less education.

The U.S. share of the truly desperate is tied for the lowest proportion among the nine countries ITUC canvassed, with the United Kingdom and China. South Korea has the highest share of the truly desperate: 22 percent of its people fall into that category.

On the other end of the scale, the ITUC reports, almost three-fourths of Chinese respondents (72 percent) say they earn enough to pay for basic essentials and can save a little money as well. India (65 percent) is next among the nine and the U.S. (60 percent) is third.

The nine nations combined account for 45 percent of world population and more than half of its output. But in them, one of every nine people (11 percent) can’t pay for the basics and another third (34 percent) earn just enough to do so, ITUC said. “This represents a social and economic disaster,” said ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow.

The survey did not delve into why respondents feel they can’t get by, but Burrow laid the blame on “corporate greed that captured the wealth of workers’ contribution through a model of global trade that relies on low wages, insecure and unsafe work that is destroying the lives of working families and ironically undermining global corporations-which are facing shrinking markets.” ITUC released its survey in advance of a global economic summit next month.

And “failure of governments to reign in corporate greed and corruption has broken trust in our democracies,” Burrow warned.

“The world needs a lift in income share for the 99 percent, with a social protection floor, a minimum wage on which people can live with dignity and strengthened collective bargaining. Nothing else will tackle inequality, kick-start economies and reassert a measure of social justice,” she stated.

U.S. workers and their allies cite several causes for financial desperation. They include:

  • Corporate export of high-paying U.S. jobs to low-paying nations overseas – aided and abetted by so-called “free trade” pacts
  • Deliberate legislation to increase income inequality, such as tax cuts skewed to the rich and cuts in programs designed to benefit the middle class and the poor.
  • The decline of worker power and the right to organize.

Another reason is the rise of the service economy, particularly both in part-time work and in its lowest-paying sectors such as health care, temps, and at bars and restaurants.

Surveyors questioned between 1,004 respondents (U.S.) and 1,034 (UK) in each of the nine G20 economies polled: Argentina, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the U.S. The surveys did not provide margins of error.

Overall, one third of all respondents said they’re barely able to pay for their essential needs – housing food and electricity – and 11 percent more said they can’t even manage that. The latter figure “has barely changed since 2012, when ITUC first begin asking this question.”

“This leaves almost half the population with no buffer for the future, and with no ability to engage with the market as consumers,” ITUC commented.

In the U.S., the West has the highest share of truly desperate people (10 percent), while the Northeast (6 percent) has the lowest. In three of the four U.S. regions, 61 percent of respondents said they had enough not just to pay for essentials, but to save a little as well. The South lagged in that, at 57 percent. The South led in people who could pay for essentials, but nothing else (31 percent). The Northeast, Midwest and West each were at 27 or 28 percent.

Photo: Marchers take part in a Martin Luther King Day march and rally to the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. John Froschauer | AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).