In recent years, a peculiar phenomenon has developed in New York City: The cost of living has gone up as the unemployment rate has dropped. And yet the percentage of households with inadequate income has more or less remained the same.
This dynamic is not only happening in the nation’s most populous city, but across the U.S. On one hand, there are encouraging signs of significant economic growth. The national unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in 49 years. Jobs have been added to the U.S. economy for 98 consecutive months, the longest streak on record. The median household income—a measurement of the middle class, really—has increased three years running. On the other hand, the majority of the U.S. workforce is not middle class.
Most American workers—65 million of them, nearly half of the U.S. workforce—fall into what some economic theorists label as the “service class”: People who labor in low-wage, low-skill jobs oriented around routine and service-based occupations, including retail workers, food and hospitality employees, child and healthcare aides and assistants, customer service representatives, and other clerical and administrative positions. Most of the people contributing to this part of the economy not only earn low wages by default, but see little to no increase in pay over time. That’s why places like New York City see steady levels of inadequate income despite decreasing unemployment rates. A report from the Economic Policy Institute found that while American productivity has increased 77% since 1977, hourly wages have gone up just 12%.
To document the issues facing these workers, Fortune interviewed three full-time, service-class employees in New York struggling to provide for their families or build a secure economic future. They spoke about the challenges of day to day life, how their pasts have impacted their current situation, and their hopes for the future through job growth and higher education.
Kamik Chin, 37
Occupation: Medical biller and Uber driver
Mother of two boys, aged 4 and 8.
Lives in public housing in Manhattan.
“By day, I’m dealing with patients and crying kids and angry, irate parents. By night, on the weekends, I’m dealing with drunks and crazy people that just need to go home and go where they’re going. If [my apartment] wasn’t income based, I wouldn’t survive. I absolutely could not afford to live in the city without it.”
“A lot of times when we go into stores, things that my kids see that they want, I tell them we don’t have it right now to get it. Even with myself, I would have to buy them clothing or new school sneakers and pay for daycare, so I can’t get myself something. A lot of times I sacrifice. Even with groceries… I don’t get any public assistance. Usually if I have the money we’ll go to BJ’s. The last couple months I haven’t had it to go to BJ’s. So we’re buying the bare minimum of groceries and snacks. [My kids] are used to going in the cabinet and having a pantry full of snacks to now… ‘Can I have something to eat?’ and I’m like, ‘There’s no snacks, so eat a banana and go to bed.’ Sometimes it’s the simple things. They like Netflix. Okay, the Netflix bill is due. ‘Mommy, Netflix is not working.’ ‘Okay, you have to wait until I get paid, because I don’t have any money on my card to pay it.’”
“Almost three years ago, we were on the verge of losing our apartment. But at the same time, I had an issue with their dad where there was domestic violence. I had to pack my kids up and go into a domestic violence shelter. We were there for about a year. Little things like [my kids] going to sleep at their friend’s house—they couldn’t do it because we had to report home every night altogether as a family. I always told myself when we got our apartment we would never go back in that situation.
“When we were in this domestic violence shelter, they moved us from one shelter to another. So my youngest son was in a daycare by the first shelter down the block. Then they moved us crosstown. Where we were in East New York, now we were in Bed-Stuy. So now we had to take a bus, a train, and a bus to get one [child] to daycare, and then go back on a train and a bus to get my oldest one to school in Manhattan. In the mornings, my little one used to have to get up at 5:30. Once, when we were going to drop the little one, my oldest one was still sleepy, and he misstepped and fell down the stairs in the subway. I told myself, ‘You’re getting them out of this shelter, and we’re getting a car.’ So when my apartment came up I did everything in my power to make sure I got it. Before we left the shelter, I did everything in my power to work as many hours as I could so we could buy a car before we left.
“I always tell myself we can’t go back there. If I have to sacrifice, you [children] can’t get a toy this week, or you guys can’t get a snack this week because we gotta pay the rent. And I have to try to remind them: Do you remember when we lived in the shelter?”
“I’m actively looking for another job. I’ve been at this job for seven years. Each year we get a raise, but for the past two years we haven’t. My kids are getting bigger. My bills are more. And my income is staying the same. I love my job, but I have to go to where I don’t have to do Uber, where I can just work a straight 9-5 and be okay and comfortable. Because it takes a toll.
“On the weekends, I don’t get to see [my kids]. When my kids are home with me on the weekends, it’s during the day and I’m sleeping because I’ve worked all night. And they have to go back and forth… So they’ll go to their dad’s for the night, and then they’ll come home in the morning with me. And then they want to spend time and do things with me, but I’m sleeping. When I wake up, it’s time to feed them, bathe them, and take them back to their dad’s. So it’s a lot.
“Sometimes we want to sit around and watch movies. Like this weekend, I said, ‘That’s it—we’re being lazy. We’re just going to sit around and watch movies.’ So that’s what we did. But they haven’t done that in forever with me. So I feel like I’m losing out on a lot of time with my kids.”
“I’ve been applying high and low, and not just in the medical field. I’ve been applying to the [Metropolitan Transit Authority], the post office. I’ve even looked into taking the sanitation test. I’ll drive a garbage truck, I don’t care! If it boosts my income to where in the long run I can reach my goals, then I’m taking it. Realistically I would like to find a better paying job where I only work that one, and then once I get settled and both of my kids are in school full time, go back to school [myself] for something else. And even if the job that I land is something that is paying well in that company and has space to grow in that field, then I might not even go back to school. I might just stay and grow there. But at this point, where I’m at at that job, I can’t grow. There’s no way to grow.”
Luz Arellano, 39
Occupation: Secretary at Mt. Sinai Health System
Mother of two boys, aged 3 and 11.
Lives in The Bronx.
“I wake up at 5:30 in the morning, get the kids ready, I come and drop my son [at the Children’s Aid Frederick Douglass Community Center in Manhattan]. My other son goes up the block, so I take him to school. Then I get on a free bus—the jitney—and I go to work. That’s every day.
“It’s hard. The pay you get is not enough for the housing and everything you have to do with your children. It’s just really hard. That’s why I live in The Bronx, because to live in the city… it’s impossible. I can’t afford it. The Bronx is getting expensive, too. I live in a good neighborhood, but I know the landlady, so she kind of hooked me up so I don’t pay as much as the apartment should be. I definitely wouldn’t be able to afford it if not. I would probably still be living with my mom.”
“I think I’m middle class. I think I’m doing okay. I feel like I could be doing better, but I think I’m doing okay. You know, my kids get what they can. I try to do as much as I can for my kids. The hardest part is rent. The rent, the lights, and providing for the children. Me and my coworkers speak about this all the time… how hard it is with children. And we don’t even get paid much. And the raises aren’t great. It’s 3 percent, that’s how the hospital is. Every year. But for four years, when the hospital was under a different name, we didn’t get raises at all. They also just changed the benefits at Mt. Sinai. For me and my family, I’ll have to pay about $400. I’m not union. So it’s like $200 extra every paycheck. I still have to pay co-payments even though I work at a hospital. It’s weird, there’s a union for certain workers in the hospital. Secretaries no; reception yes. I would like to buy a house eventually, but it’s impossible. I’m worried. It’s like, you get paid for bills and that’s it. You barely have anything extra, for anything.
“I went to college for a year, but I didn’t finish. Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn. I decided to take a break and I just never went back. It was hard for me because a lot of school work was challenging. My mother didn’t speak English, my father is illiterate. A lot of things I learned on my own, so I went to college. It was a little challenging for me, and instead of keep going, I just gave up. But now that I’m older, it’s like… you look at it, and it’s like, I should’ve kept on.”
“The hospital offers different classes. I just volunteered to take an internship for emerging leadership because I want to be a supervisor or a manager. I’m looking to grow because I can’t. As a secretary, it’s not working for me. And I’ve been doing this for so long—eight years as a secretary, 18 within the hospital altogether. So it’s supposed to train me to speak better and improve how I am with my work to become a leader, to become a supervisor. It’s an internship where I’ll learn all the different departments in the hospital, so I’ll basically know more. It gives me the chance where, if I want to interview to be a supervisor in a different department, I’ll know about that department. So that helps out.”
James Brown III, 35
Occupation: Records manager and athletic trainer
Father of one boy, aged 7.
Lives in public housing in Manhattan.
“I train kids in boxing as well as in basketball. I played basketball in college, I have a lot of experience. I did some coaching as well in junior high school and high school. It’s a way to make money on the side with a lot of kids who are looking for guidance, looking to develop their skills. I picked up the skills to train through my son. He’s seven years old. I went through a lot of hardships with basketball trying to make it to the next level. I also gained a lot of experience and a lot of great people that I met through it. But I noticed that boxing is something that, if you’re self-motivated, you can get there on your own, to the highest point. In addition to discipline and self focus, I put him in boxing at the age of four, and through those trainings… well, it wasn’t affordable, so I paid for one half of the week to get him professional training, and then the other half I took those things I learned from his trainers and I’ve applied it to him.
“I’ve never not gotten a job based off an interview. It’s just that I never get the interview, which is the toughest part. On my résumé, I’ve had six jobs as an adult, and probably five of them were through friends or somebody helping me get through the door. I would love to get a job just by applying online and getting an interview, but that’s something that’s been tough. I’ve given my résumé to professionals, I’ve done it through CareerBuilder. But it just doesn’t seem to work out that way. So it puts another thing in perspective to me: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I have no idea what would make my résumé stand out. I have three different kinds of résumé, and I tailor them based off of what position I’m going for. I just don’t know what an HR person or whoever’s a supervising manager would need to call me in.”
“Yeah, I’m making $21,000, but I don’t feel poor. I guess my… I don’t want to say ego, but my pride won’t let me say it’s hard, because I still provide for my son—he’s never missed a meal, he has clothes on his back, I have clothes on my back, and because of my relationships, I’ve traveled around the world three times. But it is rough living in New York because the prices are outrageous here. I don’t want to personally say that it’s terrible, or like I’m poor. My pride won’t let me do that.
“But it is scary. I’ve given it thought from time to time. It would be very tough to maneuver this city without [income-based housing]. You see what they’re doing with the trains? I remember when the train used to be $1.25, some people remember when it was 75¢. It’s out of control the way things are going up, but my wages haven’t gone up. It’s very scary because I look at my situation and think there are people 10 times worse than I am. And I’m about 1,000 times worse, on the financial scale, then someone who’s middle class. So, it would be rough. It would be hell.”
“I found out when I was about 27 years old that debt can hinder you when it comes to jobs. A whole lot of jobs won’t hire you because they feel like if you have bad credit, you may do things that will compromise your integrity. For me, student loans are almost like a slap in the face, because you did everything right. You went to college. You’ve never been arrested. You’ve been a decent citizen. But now, you have to pay this thing back, but you don’t have the money to pay it back. Even if you got a job and made decent money, you still have an animal on your back that will keep you in a certain position. Even tomorrow, if I got a job that paid me $80,000, I’d still have to pay $50,000 [to debt]. When do you get your head above water? I don’t think it’s fair. So I just keep deferring. It may seem irresponsible, but I’d rather live my life owing some billion-dollar institution and be able to feed my family than to not. You have to make a hard choice. I’d rather not pay, than starve to pay, these guys.”
A version of this article appears in the January 2019 issue of Fortune as part of the special report, “The Shrinking Middle Class.”