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Low-Wage Living

We set out to hear the realities and perceptions of people working in low-wage industries in the Pittsburgh region. Here’s what we learned.

America is experiencing its longest bull market since World War II.

What does that mean for those earning $7.25 an hour? Or even $15?

Many of the workers propping up the economy aren’t riding the wave. This project will explore the lives of some Pittsburgh-area workers earning low wages and the policies and practices that affect them.

This project will last through June 2019, but our efforts to cover the experiences of all people in our region won’t end. Are we missing something important? Help us tell these stories.

Click ALL STORIES in the bottom left for a list or navigate through each story using the arrows.

The project is made possible, in part, with the support from The Opportunity Fund.



KeAnna Weathers loss and instability with three children by her side

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For two years, KeAnna Jones carried around a backpack with sheets and blankets in case she and her children had to sleep in the park.

Now, she lives in a three-bedroom house in Homewood with her children: Aubrey, 8, Christopher, 6, and Kadin, 4.

This is the first stable home of their own since 2013.

In the past six years, KeAnna experienced the deaths of two partners — both heart attacks. She lost housing and couldn’t keep her job in child care while also making sure her own children were cared for. She recently found a job in home health care that pays roughly $7.50 an hour.

Just seven months ago, KeAnna and her children were waiting for a Section 8 housing voucher. They were homeless, relying on family and friends to house them.

Sometimes they camped in a Shadyside park. Kadin, then 6 months old, would sleep in his stroller. Aubrey and Christopher would sleep on the ground or bench. KeAnna never really got any sleep.

"I wanted to cry. I never wanted to go through that with my kids. It was really, really hard to have to even think like that with my kids. It’s a really scary thing.”

Section 8 (formally the Housing Choice Voucher Program) is a federal program that assists those in need of affordable housing by paying a portion of their rent.

It is common to wait on the Section 8 list for years.

KeAnna waited for two years.

KeAnna’s late husband, Chris, worked in housekeeping at Children’s Hospital.

After his death, KeAnna couldn’t afford rent on her own. Job troubles followed.

“After he passed, I started to lose everything. My son [Christopher] was 3 months old, and we had to go to a shelter.”

KeAnna is a former daycare worker. She’s been working in child care since she was 13.

Before her husband’s death, she was working in daycare as part of the Americorps Program, helping kindergartners with their reading and math skills.

When her children’s fathers were alive, KeAnna would pay for daycare out of pocket at the school where she worked.

“It is hard because you can’t get child care if you're not working, but you need child care to start working.”

Six months ago, KeAnna found a job as a homecare worker.

“I have a client whose house I go to and take care of him.” She cooks, cleans and keeps him company.

KeAnna still doesn’t have child care for her kids, though.

The kids “are all in school but I still have to get my youngest son and take him to work with me.” He naps while she finishes up her shift.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average cost of child care for a 4-year-old in Pennsylvania is $673 a month.

KeAnna works eight-hour days, five days a week. Her weekly paycheck comes to about $300.

When schools are closed or a kid is sick, KeAnna must call out of work. She loses her pay on those days.

KeAnna hopes to eventually apply to the Board of Education and get a job in child care again. She’d love to work in a school, which may also provide relief in terms of child care if her children could attend.

“That’s the only way it’s gonna work.”

Working in a low-wage industry and the issues that come along with that haven’t distracted KeAnna from what matters most to her — the kids.

Christopher wants to be a scientist. Kadin calls his T-Rex toy his baby and says KeAnna is its grandmother.

Aubrey collects dolls and her favorite class in school is choir. She has the same music teacher KeAnna had when she was a girl.

“My daughter still makes honor roll. She can still make academic honor roll with it being so stressful. She’s the second mom..."

"That’s what keeps me together, it’s them.”

Joey, a Deaf man, struggles to advance in the workforce

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Joey D’Auria grew up in the rural village of Mount Braddock in Fayette County. He once dreamed of working for a golf company like Titleist. But at 29, he still lives there with his parents and works full time as an accounting clerk at a casino.

Joey is Deaf. He believes the related societal barriers have stalled his professional life.

Despite his college degree, Joey makes $14.21 an hour and feels like he can’t advance in his career. After making car and insurance payments, buying gas and tending to other living expenses, he said there’s not enough money left over to pay rent and utilities for a place of his own.

Joey was born Deaf and attended the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf from preschool to second grade, living in a dormitory with other Deaf students.

But Joey and his parents wanted him to have the same education as his hearing peers.

“I needed more of a challenge ... I felt like I maxed out there and I didn’t want to delay my education.”

He transferred to the Frazier School District where he attended with support services, such as interpreters and English teachers provided by Intermediate Unit 1.

“Most of the time I was with hearing peers in my class. We were equal in intellectual ability.”

He joined the golf team and ran track at Frazier High School, where he graduated in 2008.

Joey and his parents decided the next step would be to attend a mainstream university.

“We decided that I needed to find a degree that fit my goals, not just go someplace because of the communication.”

In 2012, he earned a degree in sport management from California University of Pennsylvania, with a concentration in professional golf management. It seemed like a perfect fit, combining Joey’s love of golf with his academics.

But Joey had doubts about his ability to work in the field. An internship at a local golf club showed him much of the customer service work depended on speaking with clients in person and by phone.

Being Deaf slowed down his response time. “The process wasn’t expedient so the line backed up.”

He took a step back to reconsider career options.

The Washington County Office of Vocational Rehabilitation assigned him a job coach, who was also an interpreter.

Joey worked for a local grocery firm for five months, recording barcodes to measure inventory.

He was hired in June 2013 at his current casino job as an auditing and accounting clerk, making $12.01 per hour.

He’s gotten raises over the years — an additional $2.20 an hour since starting nearly six years ago — but no promotions.

Others with less education have advanced past him.

Joey applies for other jobs that fit his credentials. Employers reach out online. Sometimes there’s interest for an interview.

Interest wanes when he requests an interpreter for the interview.

“They’ll say, ‘Yes, we’ll get an interpreter.’ But then things change and they will say the position is filled.”

A phone interview would be possible with Joey using an app that connects him with an interpreter. But it rarely gets to that point.

He feels certain it’s discrimination. “But what else are you going to do? What can I do?”

“I think when they hear the word ‘Deaf’ it changes how they view me.”

“It’s a hearing world, you know.”

Joey still tries to golf once a week.

Last year, he helped organize the Southeastern Deaf Golfers Association Open at the Totteridge Golf Course in Greensburg.

But he figures any career advancement will be for an office job in finance, accounting or auditing, which he has come to like.

He’d like to earn enough to move out of his parents’ home, to support himself and eventually a family of his own.

He’d like to work as an equal in the hearing world but maintain ties to his Deaf peers.

“My goal is to be able to find a job with good pay and to be also able to socialize with the Deaf community.”

An illustrated look at data on labor and poverty in Pittsburgh and beyond

The Pittsburgh economy, like the rest of the country, is humming along. But after a decade of steady growth, that prosperity hasn’t filtered down to everyone.

About two out of every five people nationally don’t even have $400 on hand to weather a small financial shock, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve. For many, that’s because their wages are low and benefits nonexistent. These workers often don’t know their work schedules until the last minute and aren’t offered a full week’s worth of hours. Low wages leave them struggling to pay for basics like health insurance, housing and transportation. Many depend on government assistance to stay out of poverty.

To show the trends impacting low-wage workers, we’ve assembled data from government agencies and academic sources tracking measures like unemployment, union membership and racial inequality. Because of geographic limitations in some data sets, the graphs below display a mix of information from the nation, state, Allegheny County, City of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Metro Area. The metro area includes Allegheny County and the surrounding counties of Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland.

If there is another piece of data or graph that you think captures the predicament of today’s low-wage workers, send it to

People are working

The unemployment rate in the Pittsburgh metro area is lower than it’s been for nearly 50 years. There are about 1.2 million workers, and fewer than 50,000 of them are currently unemployed. And more than half of those will no longer be unemployed within six months, according to the Federal Reserve.

(Source: Federal Reserve)

But not as many as they say

Low unemployment is not the whole story. Some workers have become discouraged and stopped looking for work, in addition to those who are working part time but want to be working full time. By that measure, about 101,000 workers in the Pittsburgh metro area were unemployed or underemployed as of August 2017, according to the Census Bureau.

(Source: Federal Reserve)

And wages have not kept up

When unemployment is low, wages typically rise as companies vie for the best workers, a relationship economists have modeled for decades. During the current economic expansion, wages have risen more slowly than in the past. So the people who have jobs now aren’t necessarily well off: Only 3.9% are unemployed but, according to the 2017 census, about 27% of people in the Pittsburgh metro area are in or near poverty — meaning they live on 200 percent of the poverty level or less. For a family of four, that means they earn fewer than $52,000.

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

When you don't make a living wage

Without a living wage, it often means employees are sending most of their earnings to a landlord or mortgage and, therefore, can’t be sure they’ll have enough food to eat or financial savings to deal with a major health emergency. More than two out of three lower-income Pittsburghers pay at least 30 percent of their income on rent, the maximum amount considered sustainable, according to census data. Around 170,000 residents in Allegheny County are food insecure, according to a 2016 study by Feeding America.

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

Why poverty feels harsher in some ways

In 1963, a person in poverty was making about half as much as the average worker. But now a person at the edge of poverty is making about a third as much as the average worker. Although someone in poverty may have access to some kinds of food and technology that they would not have had in the past, they now earn comparatively less than their middle-class neighbors.

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

Minimum wage

How can it be that people are working and yet living near poverty? One answer: In 2018, nearly 100,000 Pennsylvanians were earning the minimum wage or less, which in Pennsylvania is still $7.25, the national minimum. The minimum wage has not increased with inflation, so it doesn’t go as far as it used to. About one in six minimum-wage workers are raising at least one child. A full-time worker earning the minimum wage, who didn’t take a vacation all year, would earn $15,080. That is below the poverty level for a household with two people.

(Source: Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry)

Unionization declines

The stagnating wages of average Americans has coincided with a rapid decline in unions. The percentage of union workers in private companies fell by about half in the United States since 1983. Many of these were manufacturing jobs, like Pittsburgh steelworkers. And the service jobs that have replaced them tend to be non-unionized and pay less.

(Source: U.S. Department of Labor)

Racial inequality

While there are low-wage workers of every background, black Pittsburghers are much more likely to earn low wages. Black workers were also more likely to be unemployed in 2017; the percentage of unemployed black workers was more than twice as high as unemployed white workers. And over the past five years, between two and three times as many black residents as white residents were in poverty. White households in the city had a 2017 median annual income of $55,671, more than twice that of black households at $22,010.

(Source: City of Pittsburgh)

In the state

Income inequality has grown even more in urban areas. Allegheny County had the second highest inequality rate in the state between 2013 and 2017. About one in every five workers makes $114,000 per year or more, while one in five workers earns $22,000 or fewer per year.

To study income inequality, researchers break the employee population into fifths and compare the highest-paid fifth of workers (80th percentile) to the lowest-paid fifth (20th percentile). In counties with lower inequality rates, the gap is smaller between incomes earned by employees in the 20th percentile and those in the 80th percentile.


A previous version of the story misstated the number of workers in the Pittsburgh metro area who were unemployed or underemployed.

Text and data by Oliver Morrison.
Illustrations by Christina Lee.

Low-Wage Living is an ongoing series through May and June 2019.
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A job is no longer enough:
Jordan’s cycle of low-wage jobs and his aspirations to buck poverty risk factors

A job is no longer enough:
Jordan’s cycle of low-wage jobs and his aspirations to buck poverty risk factors

Jordan Simpson. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

It was still dark out in December as Jordan Simpson helped his 5-year-old son, Jordan Simpson Jr., pull his shirt over his head and get ready for day care.

The only light in the living room came from the muted cartoons. Simpson lives with his mother in Braddock, and she was still asleep.

Jordan Jr. told his dad he was tired and the couch they slept on was uncomfortable.

Last fall, a flood in the basement ruined their floor mattress. Simpson, 24, had not yet been able to afford a new one, so they had taken to sleeping on the couch. That night, Jordan Jr. fell asleep to “The Land Before Time” wedged between his dad and his dad’s girlfriend, who was spending the night.

Simpson is one of the millions of workers across the country who don’t have enough savings to weather short bouts of adversity and they don’t have a secure enough income to pay for some of life’s basics, like a mattress, heating or transportation.

This isn’t supposed to be the case in an economy where the unemployment rate is at its lowest level in decades, in both Pittsburgh and the country as a whole. But for Simpson and many low-wage workers like him: having a job is no longer enough.

Jordan Simpson helps his 5-year-old son, Jordan Simpson Jr., get his shoes on before heading to day care. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Between 1980 and 2016, the number of Americans in poverty grew by 17 million. That growth largely came from working-age adults, according to the Brookings Institute.

In 2017, there were about 6.9 million Americans who worked but didn’t earn enough to get out of poverty, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And the number of people who work and live close to poverty is even greater. In the United States and in the Pittsburgh metro area, more than a quarter of residents live at, below or near the poverty level — meaning that they earn less than 200% of the poverty wage or about $25,000 for a single person and $52,000 for a family of four.

At his current wage, it’s hard for Simpson to imagine a future.

“If I do get married, I won’t be able to buy my girlfriend a nice ring,” Simpson said.

Last summer, Simpson had two months left in a job training program where he learned landscaping and professional skills. He decided he needed to find a way out of the cycle of low-wage jobs.

“I have two months to figure out what I really want to do,” he said at the time. “I don’t want to waste time and keep doing these jobs. I want to start a career. It’s either going to be plumbing or physical therapy.”

But the way forward for workers like Simpson isn’t easy. By December, he had taken another temp job as a janitor and now works at a gas station.

Barriers to advancing

Although the unemployment rate is at one of its lowest levels since 1969, if you factor in inflation, the wages of low-income workers like Simpson have barely budged for five decades. That doesn’t mean the country hasn’t been getting richer. But most of the economic growth has gone to the wealthy and very wealthy, according to a 2016 analysis from the Congressional Research Service.

For years, workers have made no more than they did the year before, and that’s turned into decades where health care and and housing costs have gone up but salaries have stagnated.

“They treat me like I am a nobody, if I’m honest. They are always threatening to fire you if you do something wrong.”

The relative value of minimum wage hasn’t kept up with inflation or productivity. The 1968 minimum wage of $1.60 would, in today’s dollars, be worth around $11.55. But if the minimum wage were set to keep pace with the productivity of the rest of the economy, the rate would be more than $20 an hour, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Simpson wants to become a plumber because it’s a steady, well-paying job that doesn’t require any formal education. About 25% of plumbers are in unions, two and a half times the national rate for workers. The average plumber makes about $50,000 per year, well above the average salary for all workers.

One of the big reasons wages have been declining for workers like Simpson, many economists believe, is the number of private sector union jobs has crashed. Those jobs were better paying than average. In 1979, about one in three workers in the private sector were union members. By 2013, it was one in 10.

So there are fewer unions jobs available now and Simpson hasn’t been able to land one. The plumber’s union told Simpson they only accept workers into their training program who score the very highest on the entrance test.

The test requires mathematical aptitude, and Simpson hopes his girlfriend will tutor him.

Simpson didn’t finish high school, and according to a 2014 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, no other industrialized country penalizes workers for not having a basic education like the United States. About 48% of adults who didn’t graduate high school earned a poverty wage in the United States. No other developed country was worse than 40% and the average was 28%.

The challenge isn’t only the low pay but also the instability. Simpson was being paid $15 an hour at his temp job as a janitor at Dura-Bond Industries in December, several dollars more than his previous job working security at a mall. But Simpson would only receive his schedule a few days before he had to work.

Sometimes he’d have to work the late shift and needed someone in his family to put his son to bed. Sometimes he had the early morning shift and needed help getting his son to day care.

His income is also unpredictable. Some weeks Simpson was offered 40 hours of work at Dura-Bond, some weeks only 24. The number of unemployed workers in the economy is about twice as high as the official rate when you include workers like Simpson who would like to work full time but can’t.

Jordan Simpson drives his 5-year-old son, Jordan Simpson Jr., to day care.
(Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Some underemployed workers have transportation challenges or caregiving responsibilities, which make full-time work challenging. Simpson cares for his son every other week, when Jordan Jr. is not with his mom. To manage parenting duties, he relies on family help and a subsidized childcare center in Braddock that costs $25 per week.

Low-wage workers often depend on government benefits, like subsidized housing and health care or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps). Without federal benefits, the percentage of Americans living in deep poverty would jump from about one in 20 to one in five, according to a 2015 study by the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. An individual in deep poverty lives on fewer than $6,250 per year, according to the most commonly used definition of deep poverty.

Because there isn’t a lot of reason to stick around for a job that doesn’t pay very much or provide health or retirement benefits, Simpson has been through a revolving door of low-wage jobs. Since dropping out of high school six years ago, he’s found work at such places as GetGo, Walmart and Wendy’s.

The low pay doesn’t just make everyday living a challenge; it also makes the work itself less enjoyable. Simpson said one of his bosses reminded him regularly that he was disposable, he said.

“They treat me like I am a nobody, if I’m honest,” Simpson said at the time. “They are always threatening to fire you if you do something wrong.”

Rough start

When Simpson was 13, his mom, Kellie Tinsley, and his stepdad were having an argument. His stepdad shot himself.

Simpson woke up, went downstairs and saw his stepdad give him a peace sign from a stretcher. He died on the way to the hospital.

After that, Simpson’s mom wasn’t herself.

“It seemed like she was just gone,” Simpson said. “She would go to therapy for it but she was just gone for a couple of years.”

“I know a lot of people who sell drugs. But I want to show my son you can do it the legal way, the right way.”

Around that time, Simpson started cutting up at school and smoking marijuana.

He dropped out and started working. He earned $300 per week and half of it would go to weed.

But in early 2018, tired of the expense and some of the side effects, he gave up smoking and set his sights on a better paying profession.

“I know a lot of people who sell drugs,” he said. “But I want to show my son you can do it the legal way, the right way.”

Risk factors

Simpson has all of the four biggest risk factors for ending up in poverty, according to sociologists at the University of California:

  1. He didn’t graduate high school.
  2. He had a child at a young age.
  3. He’s a single parent, splitting parenting duties with his child’s mother.
  4. And he’s had a number of stretches of unemployment.

He’s also had a couple close calls with the criminal justice system that have made his life difficult but doesn’t have the kind of criminal record that would make it even more challenging.

In high school, he ran into a teacher running through the hallway and was referred to the criminal justice system. He had to pay a fine. A couple years ago, he was caught driving before he passed his driver’s test and wasn’t allowed to get a license for a year. But no one counseled him about what to do, so it took him two years to get through the legal paperwork that would allow him to finally get his license.

That means Simpson hasn’t been able to apply for some jobs that require a license. Sometimes he takes the bus. And at other times, he’s had to borrow his girlfriend’s car to get to work, despite the legal risk of driving without a license. He had to turn down a landscaping job because it was too far away.

“I would have already had a better job now if I would’ve had my license,” he said. “Something I would really like doing.”

Kenny Johnson, Jordan Simpson (second from left), John Jones and James Ellis take a break from clearing trails last summer as part of Landforce, a work development program. Simpson was offered a landscaping job at the end of the summer but said he couldn’t take it because he didn’t have transportation. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Despite all the obstacles, Simpson is motivated to work. His girlfriend has been encouraging him to go back to school, like her. He likes the idea of becoming a physical therapist because he had a rare neurological disorder that paralyzed him temporarily when he was a teenager. Therapy helped him recover his ability to move.

But he isn’t sure how he could support his son and pay tuition.

He lacks the family wealth, education or connections that help his middle- and upper-class counterparts work their way up the income ladder.

So even though there is some stability in Simpson’s life, it will be difficult to overcome all the obstacles he faces on his own.

Soon after Simpson’s son was born, he and Jordan Jr.’s mom got matching tattoos of his name tattooed in Chinese characters. And Simpson got another tattoo on his own that reads:

“It’s my job to lead you to success and if you fail, it’s because I failed, not you.”


Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

This story was fact-checked by Tom Lisi.

Low-Wage Living is an ongoing series through May and June 2019.
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Raising minimum wage in PA:
How can we make progress even if our state Legislature doesn’t?

Raising minimum wage in PA: How can we make progress even if our state Legislature doesn’t?


Ilyssa Manspeizer, executive director of Landforce. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Livable minimum wage is a topic that is being debated in state capitols across the country these days. It has raised questions about how we value labor and, by extension, the people who do the lowest paying jobs in this country. Illinois recently passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage bill. It’s the fifth state to do so. California, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts and New York are all implementing stepped transitions to the $15-an-hour minimum wage.

In Pennsylvania, there is no livable minimum wage law, though Gov. Tom Wolf has continually advocated for a minimum wage increase since taking office in 2015. In the absence of this legislation, are we, in effect, saying that it is acceptable for some people to live trapped in a cycle of poverty, subsidizing our enjoyment of the goods and services they deliver?

As employers, we have the power to make a different choice and lead the way forward even when our legislators may not yet be ready. A model from a unique collaboration in Pittsburgh can show us how to acknowledge the value of each others’ labor, agree to pay people adequately for the work they do, support their transition to better jobs, and no longer demand that poor people subsidize our fast food, our hospitals and even our green assets, through their entrenched poverty.

I come at this question because I run a small Pittsburgh social enterprise nonprofit called Landforce, which combines workforce readiness and environmental stewardship. With seven full-time staff and 24 seasonal staff (and my graying hair), believe me when I say I know what it means to worry about payroll. Yet, this year, with a dedicated board of directors, we are committing to raising the wages from $13 an hour to $15 for those seasonal employees who complete the initial training program. As a social enterprise, their wages will all come from the environmental stewardship contracts we work on.

“As employers, we have the power to make a different choice and lead the way forward even when our legislators may not yet be ready.”

So why would we ever willingly, without any pressure from our employees, raise wages to $15 an hour? Beyond the myriad of economic goals behind why a minimum wage increase is beneficial, there are two reasons: because we value our crew members’ labor and because we value our crew members.

Landforce crew members work hard in the heat, sun and rain to ensure that our region has a healthier, more welcoming environment. Crews construct trails; tend increasing numbers of rain gardens and green stormwater runoff areas; plant trees along slippery river banks or steep hillsides; remove invasive knotweed, vines and other plants from our woodlands; and construct garden beds for communities to grow fresh food. This is all hot, heavy, physically and mentally challenging work, which results in a host of environmental benefits and more livable communities we can all enjoy.

We also value the people who do this work. Our crew members arrive at Landforce, sometimes suffering from longstanding mental health issues or struggling with substance abuse, perhaps on their way home from incarceration, perhaps just never having successfully applied for a job before. What unifies all of our crew members is the constant, day-to-day worry about money — the where’s my next meal coming from, fear of eviction, how do I pay for the bus to work and buy diapers for my baby kind of worry. We have seen that this kind of constant, unrelenting anxiety has serious damaging effects. It affects our crew members’ ability to make good decisions, to follow through on a plan and, above all, to imagine that things will get better. How can our crew members work toward their professional goals — passing a driving permit test, clearing fines from licenses, registering for college courses, attending therapy, staying sober — if they need to work a second job just to pay rent? How are they supposed to make their own lives better if they spend their time running in place only to discover they’re actually sliding backward? It is soul destroying. And none of us deserves to have our soul destroyed.

Ilyssa Manspeizer, executive director of Landforce. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

We are willing and able to pay a more livable wage because we depend upon a strong network of partners. We rely on three key collaborations: foundation, donor and governmental support for our training and coaching components; employers who are eager to hire former crew members; and public and private entities that contract with us to conduct the environmental work.

Seasonal crew wages all come from stewardship contracts with partners who, while making business decisions, also understand that we all need to have a hand in ensuring that Pittsburgh becomes a more just and equitable city. So while we are a nonprofit, the wage we pay our crew members is a business decision based upon what the market will bear.

While working on environmental projects for municipalities, developers or nonprofits, our seasonal crew members gain and practice important work-readiness skills they have learned during an intensive training period. All the while, crew members’ professional goals are supported by one-on-one career coaching. Last year, 92 percent of crew members who finished their terms with us were offered jobs by other employers within a couple of weeks of the end of the season.

And while there is room for debate if even this is an adequate living wage, it is a good place for employers to start to push the conversation and show Pennsylvania legislators that we value the people who work with us as well as the work they do. Otherwise, when we insist upon paying wages that don’t allow people to live with a modicum of safety and security, we crush them. We demoralize them. We demean them. And, we do this all while enjoying the fruits of their labor — the clean hospitals, the cheap food or the freshly cut trail. The way we function now, we can have those things because we are free riders on someone else’s poverty.

We invite other employers to join Landforce and our partners to respect both the work and the worker by paying wages that allow people to live in dignity while together we enjoy the fruits of their labor.


Ilyssa Manspeizer, Ph.D., is the executive director of Landforce, a Pittsburgh social enterprise nonprofit that invests in people’s lives while restoring our environment.

Low-Wage Living is an ongoing series through May and June 2019.

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Amy balances coping with crisis and piecing together a future

Amy balances coping with crisis and piecing together a future

(Swipe through or use arrows)

Amy Gill sits on a bench at Bayne Park in Bellevue. She points across Lincoln Avenue at several locations that show her life story before more than a decade of hard times.

A home at Sheridan Avenue where she moved with her parents from Virginia Beach at age 14.

The site of the now-demolished house her great-grandparents lived in on South Fremont Avenue.

And, a home on Monroe Avenue she lived in with her two daughters. She rented it from her father and stepmother and lost it after her father’s death in 2005.

“Our mortgage was only $333 a month but, when my dad died, my stepmother sold the house out from under us.”

Losing the house was the final straw.

Looking back now, Amy notes that her resume following their housing crisis looks like a map of her addiction and decline in mental health.

She says she went from supervisory positions at a hotel and doctor's office to a cycle of low-wage, part-time jobs.

The family fell off the tightrope.

Amy, now 47, and Jalyn, her youngest daughter, became homeless. Amy battled addiction, and they slept on couches for four years.

Her oldest daughter, then 16, lived with another family in the school district so she could graduate.

“She went to stay with friends, and I couch-surfed,” Amy said. “Jalyn didn’t have a lot of stability until she was 7, but it was normal to her. We didn’t have space and privacy, staying in other people’s homes, but I tried to always keep bedtime and bathtime the same. Create a bit of normalcy.”

After about a year on the waitlist for low-income public housing, Amy’s family moved into a subsidized apartment in Allegheny Commons. It was 2011.

Amy started doing janitorial work for the Allegheny Center Alliance Church across the street, mixed in with work as a home health aide.

Over the course of five years, she got on her feet and decided to apply for a Housing Choice Voucher (or Section 8). In the fall of 2015, she and Jalyn moved closer to Amy’s roots in Bellevue. She’s clean now and gets support from Mercy Behavioral Health and New Horizons drop-in center in Bellevue.

Though Amy and Jalyn have their own rooms, they often sleep together in the living room. “We slept on so many couches, it just feels usual.”

Poverty, and people’s perception of it, is always on Amy’s mind.

She takes Jalyn, now 15, to Plato’s Closet to try to find her suitable used clothing. But if the teen wants her hair or nails done, she needs to earn money babysitting.

“She’s used to being poor, but she wants a better quality of life. She’s trying for what she thinks is normal.” Jalyn recently made the cheerleading squad and is fundraising to pay for the cost of it.

Amy’s take-home pay barely covers basic necessities most weeks. At a recent trip to the food bank, she picked up fresh fruits for a salad — a rare treat.

Life is a constant balancing act.

“I have $6 to my name and need to load $4 on my ConnectCard to get the food we need,” she said, referencing transportation costs to the food bank. “Will I have enough money to get to work Thursday? I don’t know, but we need the food.”

Until April, she was working in the Strip District at a retail store, but the three-hour round trip by bus made a job she loved difficult to access.

She began a new job at a store in Bellevue that she can walk to.

She texted excitedly, “Same rate of pay. Might even be able to work an extra 8 hours a week!!”

But with the additional eight hours, she worried she’d lose the $100 in food stamps they get each month. Her rent would increase $50 per month, too. “It’s a tricky, slippery slope.”

The job situation soured after a couple weeks. She has returned to intermittent work as a home health aide.

Though she’s made it back to Bellevue, Amy recently discovered that her landlord is selling their house.

She has no idea if it will stay a rental or if the new owners will accept Section 8 vouchers. Amy is overwhelmed but tries to remain optimistic.

“I just have to breathe.”

Shayla's leap of faith leads to a raise and a union job

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Shayla Hopkins works in the cafeteria at Duquesne University, washing dishes. It’s hot and the work is repetitive. Hopkins’ ex-girlfriend derisively calls her a “lunch lady.”

But Shayla, who started the job in November, has never been happier at work.

Until now, Shayla didn’t think she could land a job like this. Nearly a decade ago, she served 18 months in prison for a bar fight.

But she was released on the aggravated assault charge more than seven years ago. And felony arrests are only reported on some background checks for seven years after release.

In November, Shayla had a dilemma. She could keep working nearly 40 hours a week at $10.80 an hour supervising room cleaners for Marriott in Oakland. Or she could take a new job as a substitute cafeteria worker for Parkhurst Dining, earning $13.08 per hour, the highest pay she’s ever made.

The tradeoff: She wouldn’t be guaranteed hours in the cafeteria.

Irregular and insufficient hours have become the norm for many workers. While the official unemployment rate is low, many workers like Shayla can’t find full-time work. The unemployment rate is about twice as high when underemployed workers are included.

Shayla’s last Marriott check was $534 for two weeks. That would put her about $1,700 above the poverty line for the year. Shayla’s first check at Duquesne was for $760.05 for 72 hours, enough to give her some breathing room.

But during Duquesne’s two-week winter break, she didn’t get any hours. She lost another week’s pay during spring break. She wasn’t sure if she had made the right decision anymore.

She told her landlord in January that her ceiling was falling in. She was reluctant to complain when it wasn't immediately fixed. Sometimes she pays rent a few days late and, if she gives advance notice, her landlord doesn’t complain either.

Shayla went to the casino during spring break and won $500 playing the slots.

She used $169 of her winnings to pay her power bill at Walgreens.

She put $200 of the winnings in a bank account and slipped the rest in her back pocket for cigarettes and gas money.

By March, Shayla saved enough to buy a used car for $1,700. Before that, it took Shayla nearly 90 minutes to get to work on the bus. Now her commute is less than half that, so she gets home at 11 p.m. instead of midnight.

Shayla grew up in a low-wage home.

Her mom, Regina Smith, worked as a maid and a home healthcare aide in her 20s but drug addiction made working difficult. At the root of her addiction: Regina’s mother, Shayla’s grandmother, was shot and killed after she tried to break up with a boyfriend. Regina, about 6 at the time, was at home.

Shayla was often put in charge of taking care of her five younger sisters. She would go to her mom’s work on payday and take the money to buy big items, like beds or a dryer, before her mom could spend it on drugs. She bought groceries with food stamps and cleaning supplies.

“I did everything to take care of the mess,” she said.

The family got by.

“We never slept on the floor,” Regina said. “I always made sure we had a decent place to live. We always had furniture. I don’t know how.”

Just before Shayla went to prison, her mom got clean for the first time in 17 years. She sent Shayla an apology note and deposited money, enabling Shayla to buy clothes for her release from prison.

In March, Shayla got some big news: She had made it through 45 days of work and could now join the union. That means more hours and job security.

“When you are new, everybody scares you: ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that or they’ll get rid of you,’” she said. “It’s like walking on eggshells ’til you get to that point.”

Shayla was looking for additional summer work when a spot opened up at Duquesne. Summer work is given out by seniority and she hadn’t thought there would be anything available. She was offered 28 hours per week serving pizza.

But that still meant she’d be living from May 8 until June 24 on just $172 in unemployment insurance, she said.

Shayla dreams of saving enough to move to somewhere warm like North Carolina or Virginia. But she hasn’t saved anything for retirement.

“I hope I even live to retire. Because life is so short, I live for today.”

I’m a “‘make sure I got cigarettes for the day and then worry about tomorrow’-type person.”

As workers age, health, savings and fear of being overlooked become top issues

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Rachelle Quinn works as an employment specialist at Eastside Neighborhood Employment center. Her job is to improve economic opportunities for low-income folks. She helps them with resumes, job applications, and workforce re-entry after extended time away.

The majority of Rachelle’s clients are of an older demographic — which she defines as age 50 or 55+ — and don’t have computer skills.

Among the clients Rachelle assisted, many left work to take care of a family member and found living off social security is not sustainable. According to Rachelle, many clients didn't use computers in their careers, and today’s job application process is almost entirely online. Job applicants need a digital resume and email just to get their foot in the door.

“They have a lot to contribute. They have incredible work ethic, and they stick with a job for 10 to 20 years,” Rachelle said. Aging workers make up a small portion of the national workforce, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers 65 and older are projected to be the fastest growing group from 2016 to 2026.

Rachelle helps older residents to find work. But for people like Bob Marion, who already have work, there are other uncertainties.

At 60, Bob cobbles together different odd jobs in the city. He works as a janitor and maintenance man at a coffee shop downtown and washes dishes at an Italian restaurant in South Side. Bob is also a day laborer, working for real estate developers and contractors in the city. On top of all that, he does work around his apartment building to get reduced rent.

Bob averages 40 to 50 work hours a week and averages a little less than $15.00 an hour among his several jobs, he said.

“I think it is a good number, for me. I live simply,” he said. “I made a conscious decision to make sure my life doesn’t cost much money. I couldn’t imagine having a family and doing this. I don’t know how people make that work,” he said.

It’s unlikely Bob will ever be able to retire.

“I don’t think I want to,” he said. “I will always see myself working maybe two days a week.”

He has some aches and pains from his labor and knows he will have to slow down eventually. But he’s never had a job at a desk and doesn’t see himself doing that, either. He knows he doesn’t have financial security, and he worries about his odds of getting ill with something as serious as cancer. Since Medicare eligibility doesn’t kick in until 65, Bob receives health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. He says it’s “basic as basic can be.”

Despite the financial challenges, he says he’s happy with the life he can afford with his work.

“I have chosen this life,” he said, “I like my freedom.”

Jane Spector, 68, is living with Multiple Sclerosis. She lived in Florida for 40 years but recently moved back to Pittsburgh. Jane can’t stand or walk for long stretches of time and has difficulty with balance. She’s been looking for work since arriving in January.

She’s unsure how upfront she should be with prospective employers about her condition.

She wonders if she should just say, “Hi, I’m Jane and I have MS.”

Jane sought assistance from a recent Chatham graduate who helped her navigate online applications, update and reformat her resume and write a new cover letter. Jane is unsure if she should list her decades of experience on her resume, which would give away her age.

She worries about being judged for her appearance at an interview.

“I’m afraid if I walk around with a cane, I lose credibility,” she said.

Jane worked in real estate and sales in Florida for about 40 years. She knows customer service, not just greeting people at a cash register, but really, caring and listening to a client. She’s confident in her skillset, but reading “must be able to lift 50 lbs” on a job listing has been discouraging.

“There’s so much I want to do. I want to work in retail or sales, but I can’t stand on my feet.”

“People pre-decide if you are able to do something,” she said, “I feel there’s so much I have to offer.”

Pennsylvania’s minimum wage isn’t rising. What that means for Pittsburgh’s restaurant workers.

Jeff Dockum works at NOLA on the Square in Pittsburgh's Market Square on June 28. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

After serving a party of fifteen for three hours, waiter Jeff Dockum walked away with $10. Well, $5 really, after splitting it with his service partner. Their bill was $541.

At first, the 21-year-old student working at NOLA on the Square worried he’d get nothing at all. The customer signed for her credit card without writing in a tip. He thought she might be tipping in cash.

“But then I thought if she was going to give money, she probably would’ve done it at this instance,” Dockum recalled.

He decided to discreetly and politely say something. She didn’t seem to understand at first. But, she asked if he was asking for a tip, loud enough to be heard by the rest of the party. “I’ll get you on the way out,” she told him.

Dockum stood near the front door, and the customer handed him $10 on the way out.

Jeff Dockum depends on tips as a server at NOLA on the Square. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In the restaurant industry, tips can be the difference between earning less than other minimum wage workers and earning a decent living. For tipped workers, Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is set at $2.83 per hour and most, if not all, can end up going to taxes.

“I don’t know if it’s a thing where people don’t know… [or] are ignorant to the fact that we make that much,” said Jessica Maffia, an industry veteran of 14 years. “That we do rely solely on tips.”

In January, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed raising the state’s minimum wage to $12 per hour by July 1, including tipped workers. Wolf added that tipping would continue under the plan. Last week, however, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a state budget that does not include a minimum wage hike.

NOLA on the Square pays its servers $2.83 per hour, according to manager Dan Finkel. Shift leaders can make around $4 or $5 per hour. A statewide increase to the minimum wage would prevent servers like Dockum from being so reliant on tips from customers for their wages. Tipped workers also rely on the restaurant’s success, and a slow day can mean less pay in spite of the hours worked.

Jessica Maffia, who now works at a restaurant downtown, describes difficult conditions at a previous serving job. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Federal law requires a restaurant to pay the difference if a server’s pay with tips doesn’t reach the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. However, a federal compliance sweep of nearly 9,000 restaurants from 2010 through 2012 revealed that nearly 84% had compliance violations.

Typical pay, including tips, can vary widely. While some workers fret that they’ll walk away with little after a long shift, others see their tipped pay as generally reliable.

But there are other problems. Bobbi Linskens, a part-time organizer for the Restaurant Opportunities Center [ROC] of Pittsburgh, said servers who depend on tips might also feel that they have to put up with sexual harassment from customers.

“Just like everybody may have to deal with a boss who sexually harasses them — but just one boss,” Linskens said. “With a server, it’s many people.”

To avoid inequities and the need to rely on customers for pay, Bar Marco in the Strip District has eliminated tipping altogether. For guests who insist, the money is placed in a little glass jar behind the bar to be donated to organizations like the Obama Academy Cooking Club or 412 Food Rescue.

“Just like everybody may have to deal with a boss who sexually harasses them — but just one boss... With a server, it’s many people.”

Bar Marco pays part-time servers an hourly wage of $15. Full-time staff receives a yearly salary, starting at around $35,000, depending on experience and role, manager and events coordinator Andrew Heffner said.

This system is meant to level the playing field between staff in different roles. A tipped server has the possibility to make more than a restaurant’s hourly wage for good service, but that service wouldn’t be possible without good food and clean dishes thanks to the back of the house.

“The kitchen side of most restaurants makes historically way less money than the front,” Heffner said.

The modern practice of tipping has evolved over more than 500 years.

Tipping is believed to have been popularized at some point during 16th century Britain with servants of private homes. Visitors were expected to give small sums of money to servants going “above and beyond their usual duties,” according to “Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities” by Kerry Segrave.

A definitive origin of the word “tip” is unknown. One origin story described in the book explains that London coffeehouse from the late 1700s had a bowl with the words “To Insure Promptitude” (T.I.P.) that patrons would put coins in throughout the evening.

Rich Americans, known for spoiling servants overseas, brought the practice home from abroad by the 20th century, Segrave wrote, but the rise of industrial capitalism and wage labor eventually decreased the need for servants and increased a need for workers in restaurants, bars, hotels and mass transportation. Those working in such occupations were deemed “social inferiors” and their jobs were seen as “menial labor.”

Today, the United States is the only industrialized nation where tipped workers depend on tips for the majority of their income, according to a study by ROC United, a nonprofit that advocates for improved working conditions and pay in the restaurant industry.

“In a world that’s driven by reviews, it’s really impossible to have any type of voice or independence or stick up for yourself in the service industry,” said Zack Woods, who has been serving for over a year.

Before he began serving at the fine dining restaurant fl. 2 at Fairmont Pittsburgh in Downtown, the 26-year-old lived in New York City spending his weekends working part-time at a gastropub in Brooklyn.

While the work is fundamentally the same, the atmosphere is much different.

“You’re expected to have such a higher standard of service and food that if something is even remotely under par, you’re going to comp it,” Woods said.

Comping, or removing an item from the check, means a lower bill and lower tip.

At Emporio: A Meatball Joint, 21-year-old Adam Flagella runs food from the kitchen, busses tables, sweeps the floors, cleans the dishes and cups, and refills ice in the bar and kitchen at the Downtown restaurant. All of this, and sometimes more, is done for $5 an hour before taxes, plus the 11% from servers tips he said he's paid as a tip-out. Burnt Orange Restaurant Group, which owns Emporio, declined to comment on employee wages.

Combining his hourly and tip-out wages, Flagella reported making an average of $150 to $200 a week for 20 to 30 hours of work at Emporio.

Regardless of the job performed, payday for both Flagella and Woods is dependent upon where they work and how much their customers spend.

“I can make anywhere from $300 to $500 a night on the weekend,” Woods said.

Despite jobs that might offer more stable income, many servers choose the work for an opportunity to be paid above the standard $7.25 minimum wage in other lines of work.

“I wanted to be able to be paid for my quality, which is why the tipping industry works out well,” said Jered Rollins, a server at fl. 2 who has been in the industry for 18 years.

Both Woods and Rollins are unionized at fl. 2, which operates under Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. Rollins was a union steward for over two years.

“We see a really rough side of people, but also a very beautiful side of people as well.”

Despite enjoying benefits like paid time-off, health insurance and a 401k plan, their paycheck quickly shrinks after accounting for union dues, taxes and contributions to those benefits. The company did not respond to a request for comment on employee wages.

The “career servers” in the industry are the ones that stick around for years —sometimes decades — like Denise Spirito, who has spent the past 31 years working as a server starting as early as legally possible. She’s spent the majority of her working life in the restaurant industry.

Working 28 to 32 hours, Spirito reported making an average of $500 per week at her current job at a Primanti Brothers location in Erie. The total can increase to around $800 or $900 around Christmas time.

The job isn’t always easy, but she sees it as reliable pay above minimum wage.

Maffia, who currently works at a gastropub Downtown, describes a harsher experience at a former job where she worked 13 hours as an average shift. There were times she would go the entire time without eating when there was no one to cover the bar. Other times she couldn’t even get away to use the bathroom.

With the wisdom and experience of career serving, both Maffia and Spirito noted the good that can outweigh a bad tip or experience.

“We see a really rough side of people, but also a very beautiful side of people as well,” Maffia said.

Each server came to this job for a different reason. For Dockum and Flagella, it was just trying to make some money while studying in college. For Woods, service will always be in his profession, but he’s still seeking a career as an experiential designer.

For Rollins, “this is a hobby.” During the day, he runs a company he started in 2016 that takes therapy dogs to nursing homes throughout western Pennsylvania and southwest New York.

Spirito attended Edinboro University for about two and a half years before facing financial barriers.

“I don’t even know what happened,” Spirito said. “If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve stayed in college.”

Working in the industry almost inevitably impacts how servers tip when they themselves are the customer.

In Maffia’s experience, customers who know the industry are easy to spot.

“You can definitely tell,” Maffia said. “You can tell based off of their patience, the way they speak to you, pre-bussing... I truly believe that in order for people to respect people in this industry, they need to know or have worked in the business at some point in time.”


Nicole Pampena is a senior journalism major at Point Park University and can be reached at

Oliver Morrison contributed to this report.

This story was fact-checked by Varshini Chellapilla.

Low-Wage Living is an ongoing series through May and June 2019.

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Five threats to the livelihoods of low-wage workers in Pennsylvania

Five threats to the livelihoods of low-wage workers in Pennsylvania

From state budget fights to outdated eligibility limits for assistance programs, this list breaks down the barriers to the social safety net.

(Illustration by Sophia Pappas/PublicSource)

Low-wage earners struggle to meet their most basic needs in the Pittsburgh region and elsewhere in America. They and their families often have to depend on government assistance programs. Programs that assist with food, health care, housing and education help people to survive, but these programs are often threatened by political interests as the myth of “welfare queens” lives on. Individuals who struggle with unemployment or past criminal records face even more hurdles to qualify and find services.

Often one misstep, paperwork error or change in political administration can threaten the safety of low-wage earners. We took a look at five of the main hurdles low-income Pennsylvanians are facing and how current legislation is affecting these safety net programs.

1. Cash assistance

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania and across the country limit access to safety net programs such as food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], General Assistance [GA] and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF]. Some barriers impact individuals with criminal records; others eliminate assistance for individuals who are not working. Both SNAP and TANF are federally funded and state administered. GA was funded by the state.

  • Legal bans. Individuals with unpaid misdemeanor or felony fines or who are fleeing a warrant cannot receive TANF. Only three states —West Virginia, South Carolina and Mississippi — have a lifetime SNAP ban for individuals convicted of felonies; other states have a range of restrictions for people with criminal records. The Pennsylvania Legislature in October passed a law, spearheaded by Sen. Mike Regan (R-Cumberland County) to ban individuals convicted of certain drug offenses from receiving any public benefits for 10 years. Titled the “Public Assistance Integrity Act,” the law also bars sex offenders who haven’t properly registered from receiving benefits, though that requirement is not new.
  • Program cuts. In 2012, PA Act 80 eliminated the state’s General Assistance program, which was designed to give cash assistance of about $200 per month to Pennsylvanians in urgent need. Recipients included individuals experiencing homelessness, addiction or abuse and individuals who cannot work due to a disability. In 2018, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that Act 80 violated the state constitution. The bill was pushed through initially with less effect on assistance programs. Later in the legislative process, other clauses that affected recipients were added to the bill. GA became available again at that point. The GOP-controlled state House and Senate recently ended the program once again amid fierce opposition from social justice advocates and recipients. The program ceased Aug. 1 after the June 26 vote.
  • Job requirements. A federal rule states individuals must be working, in job training or in certain education programs to continue to receive SNAP and TANF benefits. There are exceptions. Recipients younger than 18, older than 50 or with dependents at home are exempt from the requirement under SNAP. Many counties, including Allegheny County, have a federally granted waiver for SNAP work requirements due to economic conditions of the area. TANF exemptions are more restrictive. Many job training programs prepare people for positions that do improve income but remain lower-wage jobs. Gov. Tom Wolf has been working to revamp the Employment Advancement and Retention Network [EARN] because he has said he feels that for too long the state has focused on job placement rather than career paths. The Keystone Education Yields Success [KEYS] program is an alternative to EARN, which has a specific set of educational tracks, such as medical records or emergency medical services, at Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges. These satisfy the work or training requirements for cash assistance. General studies and liberal arts programs, for example, do not qualify, but the average KEYS graduate still earns 32% to 42% more than those who do not complete the program according to the Community College of Allegheny County. Still, many caseworkers do not even know about KEYS, and enrollment rates are low for the program.
  • Federal opposition. The Trump administration has proposed changes that would remove millions of people from SNAP. This spring, the administration proposed eliminating the federal program that waives the work requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents in certain counties (the waiver that Allegheny County currently has). More recently, the administration has sought to restrict categorical eligibility for SNAP, which serves more than 1.7 million Pennsylvanians, according to the governor’s office. Under current guidelines, more than 3 million individuals are expected to receive automatic eligibility nationwide in 2020 based on state regulations. This eligibility is currently automatic when an individual already receives another benefit such as TANF, GA or SSI. Republican lawmakers are proposing tightening the categorical eligibility guidelines, requiring families qualifying under expanded categorical eligibility to go through the SNAP application and means test. The move could endanger benefits for around 200,000 Pennsylvanians, according to Wolf.
2. Housing barriers

Low-wage earners often struggle to find affordable housing, defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as housing that doesn’t cost more than 30% of a household’s monthly income. Housing can be harder to find due to rules imposed on individuals with criminal records and a lack of landlords willing to accept housing choice vouchers (Section 8).

  • Legal bans. Criminal convictions related to drugs, physical violence or any other conviction at the discretion of the housing authority or landlord can block an individual from receiving public housing. Federally, HUD has recommendations and guidelines related to those with criminal records, but the actual decision is left up to states and even private landlords. Each housing authority then decides how they will approach convictions. Private landlords, including those taking Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8), can decide what tenants they want to accept. This can make it difficult for some people to successfully reenter society after they have served a sentence; a place to live can be a condition of parole and stable housing is among basic necessities for a person or family to focus on other things like work or school. (PublicSource published a story in February 2019 about a man who was denied housing by the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh after serving 49 years in prison as an accomplice in a 1968 murder.)
  • Voucher discretion. Landlords are not required to accept Housing Choice Vouchers, and many landlords do not want to navigate the program’s requirements. This means that individuals who qualify for the subsidy may not be able to find an affordable place to live. Notably, the City of Minneapolis is in a legal fight over an ordinance prohibiting landlords from discriminating against voucher holders (though they are not required to accept them).
3. Child care

For low-wage workers with children, earning potential is limited by access to affordable child care. Child care in Pennsylvania averages more than $10,000 per year, per child. This cost means it is not feasible for low-wage earners to work without some type of assistance. Subsidized child care funded through the state is available through the Child Care Works program, but it is not readily accessible to all who need it. Other programs that provide child care are combined with education, such as Pre-K Counts and Head Start; they face limited availability and long wait lists.

Beyond cost barriers, legal hurdles limit availability.

  • Job requirement. Child Care Works [CCW] may help to pay for child care, but parents can only apply when they have proof of a job starting within 30 days. They will lose the subsidy if they dip below 20 hours per week (or 10 hours per week with 10 hours of approved school or training in addition).
  • Underfunded. A 10-year rate freeze that was only lifted in July 2018 means that many centers prioritized private-pay clients over low-wage earning families, adding further stigma to subsidized individuals.
  • Documentation requirement. Individuals accessing early childhood programs must have valid ID and be citizens or immigrants lawfully admitted for permanent residency. Families must meet criteria tied to federal poverty guidelines, which varies by program.
  • Budget fight. Wolf’s 2019-2020 budget included a $30 million increase across all areas of early childhood education, including 3,665 more spots for waiting children (2,200 for Pre-K Counts, 465 for Head Start and 1,000 for subsidized child care). Republican leaders in the state voiced resistance to the exact numbers in the new budget, which resulted in Wolf getting less than what he proposed. Wolf’s proposal led to an increase of the education budget by $160 million, slightly short of his initial $200 million proposal. This amount is more than the increase he received last year but half of what he initially proposed his first year in office. The 2.6% education increase has received sharp criticism from education advocate groups, who cite rising education costs that this budget barely keeps up with.
4. Health care

Many low-wage jobs do not offer benefits, and Medicaid can be difficult to access due to the complicated application process. Medicaid is a health insurance program for individuals meeting income guidelines, or with qualifying special needs or disabilities, jointly funded by federal and state funds. Medicaid is free or very low cost to individuals who qualify, as opposed to insurance that can be purchased through the marketplace.

  • Work requirements. Wolf struck down a Republican-backed work requirement for Medicaid in 2018, but 17 other states have various work requirements or are in the process of implementing these requirements. State Republicans, led by state Sens. Scott Martin (R-13th District) and David Argall (R-29th District), continue to push for a work requirement for able-bodied adults receiving Medicaid.
  • ‘Resource limits.’ Many families report having to stay in low-wage jobs to keep Medicaid and other benefits. It’s often referred to as “the benefits cliff,” where families balance the choice of earning slightly higher incomes and losing benefits or staying in a lower wage job with benefits. The resource thresholds differ based on demographics and programs.
5. Savings

For low-wage earners, paying off debt and building up savings can impact their ability to draw benefits. Most low-wage earners are one small crisis away from financial disaster.

  • Earning too much. Medicaid and federal disability include asset tests. This means that a family could be ineligible for benefits if they save too much. While many factors affect the asset test, generally individuals with more than a few thousand dollars in savings will be ruled ineligible. So if individuals can build savings, it will render them ineligible for services they need. There is no asset test for SNAP. Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell removed the test in 2008; former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett reinstated it in 2012; and, in 2015, Wolf removed it again. The asset test is a federal requirement, but state governors can decide if it is enforced.
  • Minimum wage. Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, among the lowest in the country. Wolf has proposed raising it to $15 an hour by 2025. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre County) has stated that he supports some increase, but hopes that lawmakers can land on a “more modest” wage increase that wouldn’t negatively affect the state’s economy. A minimum wage increase was not included in the 2019-2020 state budget, but Wolf continues to push for the increase. A minimum wage increase would have deadlocked voting on the state budget due to polarized opinions of Democratic and Republican state congress members, so Wolf chose to proceed without the increase while vowing to keep advocating on the topic.


Correction (8/6/2019): This story previously misstated disqualification criteria for SNAP and exemption criteria for TANF.

Meg St-Esprit is a freelance writer based in Bellevue. She can be reached at or on Twitter @MegStEsprit.

This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.

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