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Stagnant take-home pay a problem for Georgians

Hall fares better than state average for weekly wages

POSTED: November 24, 2013 12:02 a.m.

After Leslie McRoberts worked in hospitality for three years, she had earned 75 cents more an hour than when she started. Now, she’s at Brenau University working on a master’s degree in hopes of earning more in the future.

McRoberts is not alone.

A recent report by the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute states Georgia’s labor market is challenged by stagnant wages after take-home pay fell for low-income and middle income workers during the Great Recession. 

Hall County’s average weekly wages increased 0.5 percent from 2011 to 2012. One policy analyst said the lack of growth statewide contributes to rising levels of economic inequality and an inability to get ahead, reflecting national trends. 

The recession started in December 2007 and ended June 2009, but the effects linger.

McRoberts, 27, graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in community health in 2008, hoping to land a job in her field. She started a summer internship with the Boulder Parks and Recreation department in Colorado, but her hopes of getting hired faded as she watched people lose their jobs. She landed a job at the front desk of a resort, making slightly more than $10 an hour. Her parents helped her with bills.

“It was probably about $21,000 a year,” she said. “I was still applying for other jobs and for my major, there’s just nothing out there. Everything requires a public health master’s degree and a lot, especially in Colorado, required you to be fluent in Spanish.”

Jobs in leisure and hospitality pay some of the lowest and highest weekly wages in Hall County, according to 2012 statistics from the Georgia Department of Labor.

Positions providing lodging and food service generated about $286 a week on average. However, jobs in the arts, entertainment and recreation averaged about $4,100. 

Wesley Tharpe, policy analyst with Georgia Budget & Policy Institute said the median wage level in Georgia is back to 1997 levels. Low-income wages are at 1996 levels. 

Earnings for the typical Georgian rose $83 for the median income worker and by $562 for the high wage worker. 

Slow wage growth is mainly due to increased work productivity, but the benefits of employees working longer and harder is going to business owners, shareholders and investors, the State of Working Georgia report concludes. Nationally, this trend dates back to the late 1970s.

Achieving the American Dream is harder than ever, especially for residents living in the Southeastern U.S. 

A study on social and economic mobility, the Equality of Opportunity Project, released earlier this year shows poor children climb the income ladder less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, with metro Atlanta ranked 49th in mobility among the 50 biggest metropolitan regions. 

Brookings Institution Fellow Richard V. Reeves wrote last week that several factors, including skills, intellect, ambition and money, can help with upward mobility. Brookings is a nonprofit research and policy organization.

“Poverty and affluence dampen mobility in both directions, even allowing for some measure of skill,” Reeves wrote. “Smart, motivated, poor adolescents will still find it harder to reach the top of the ladder than smart, motivated, rich adolescents.”

Hall County workers have a couple of pluses on their side, Tharpe said. The median annual wage for the typical worker in the county was about $40,000 in 2012, higher than the statewide average. Unemployment also went down slightly, 0.8 percent. 

Unemployment in South Georgia and more rural communities in the state are still seeing high or rising unemployment numbers. 

“It does speak to the need for people to be continuously improving their skills, improving their level of education,” Tharpe said. “In the modern economy, that’s the route to getting a higher wage, higher performing job.”

Tharpe said professional services, such as accounting and law, have fully recovered from the recession, while construction and manufacturing industries are still recovering. With the increasing importance of technology, people need more sophisticated skills, but that doesn’t automatically mean a four-year degree. 

Georgia’s technical schools, such as Lanier Technical College in Oakwood, are a solid asset for the state, he said.

“It still absolutely pays to get a college degree, if you look at the averages, at the economy as a whole,” Tharpe said. “That doesn’t mean that every single person needs to get a college degree. There are other very good avenues for getting ahead and getting the skills to get a good paying job.”

McRoberts said she spent years researching career paths before deciding to get her master’s degree in occupational therapy. She’s not concerned with making a fortune, but wants to make enough to pay off debt, save money, travel and have a family.

“I really had no choice but to find something different than hospitality because the money that you make working at a front desk does not cut it,” she said.


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