Low-Income Workers

Low-Income WorkersEmployed persons living close to or below the poverty line can be considered low-income workers. Some examples of occupations characterized by low income are food service, retail, secretarial work, and cleaning jobs. Low-income workers face many challenges in the workplace, and traditional vocational interventions often do not meet the needs of this population. There is little theory or research that addresses the vocational development of low-income individuals. However, innovative interventions are being proposed to enable individuals to move toward greater economic self-sufficiency.

Historically, career-development theories have not focused on the experiences of low-income individuals. Several tenets of career theory that appear inconsistent with the experiences of many low-income workers include the assertions that individuals make autonomous choices regarding careers, that the goal of work is self-actualization, that work is a central component of meaning in one’s life, and that all people can achieve whatever they work hard to accomplish. Pursuit of a career implies choice and a progression in one’s occupation. For some low-income workers, however, economic survival (not career advancement) may be the primary goal of employment.

Within the United States, people living below the poverty line tend to include large numbers of women and people of color. Factors contributing to the high prevalence of women and minorities in low-income jobs include educational attainment disparity, racism, sexism, divorce, domestic violence, discrimination against low-income people, and responsibility for children and aging relatives. Individuals struggling with physical and mental illnesses may also be found in low-income occupations.

Low-income workers are at risk for chronic unemployment and underemployment due to obstacles at home, in the workplace, and in society at large. Low-income workers may lack the nutritional foundation needed to perform their jobs well. Their physical health also may be compromised due to stressors encountered at home and strenuous conditions at work. Higher rates of psychological problems have been found among low-income workers, including depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse. Some workers cannot afford to pay for health insurance and thus lack access to adequate medical, dental, and psychological care.

In addition, minimum-wage and low-paying jobs often do not provide enough income to allow individuals to find affordable and safe housing. The neighborhoods in which low-income families live may not be safe, and the schools in these neighborhoods are often deficient. Low-income workers commonly must work multiple jobs to support themselves and their families. Working many hours may affect their ability to prepare and consume healthy meals, to parent effectively, and to be involved in the academic and social development of their children. Many low-income workers may not have access to safe child care and reliable transportation.

In the workplace and in society, low-income workers may encounter prejudice in the form of sexism, racism, and classism. Their jobs also may involve physically demanding tasks, difficult hours, and little flexibility in schedule. The structure of many low-income jobs does not promote advancement and higher wages. Low-income workers and their children may feel trapped in a cycle of poverty that is difficult to escape.

Recently, vocational interventions have been developed for welfare recipients, high school students, and children in at-risk environments to promote job readiness and employment attainment. As a result of legislative changes limiting the amount of time that individuals may receive welfare assistance, several programs focus on attaining economic self-sufficiency prior to the cessation of financial assistance from the government. The purpose of most of these programs is to promote long-term economic self-sufficiency, and most of the programs utilize an interdisciplinary approach to providing comprehensive services to all family members. Individual case management, job training, job transition, and access to education are included. In addition, assistance in obtaining supportive services is provided (e.g., quality child care, affordable and safe housing, and reliable transportation).

The school-to-work transition movement attempts to minimize the barriers that many low-income youth encounter when they leave high school and enter the labor market. In 1994, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act was enacted, with the goal of facilitating the transition from high school graduation to employment for non-college-bound youth. Federally funded programs enable students in public school systems to access community-based organizations through joint ventures of educators, parents, and labor unions. Such programs typically involve career counseling and the integration of school- and work-based learning. Students are given the option of preparing for technical-preparatory and college career paths and have the opportunity to learn outside the classroom through internships or apprenticeships in the community. These programs are especially encouraging for non-college-bound youth, who receive training in high school and, if deemed necessary, in the workplace, community colleges, or other vocational schools.

Several school interventions aim to facilitate the academic and vocational success of children living in at-risk environments. Notably, school-to-career interventions in Boston public schools address students’ uncertainty about their education and career options, while helping them access resources for achieving their goals. For instance, interventions often engage students in self-exploration, identifying resources and barriers, connecting school and work, and enhancing personal strengths. In collaboration with parents, psychologists, administrators, teachers, and the community, such programs empower students to effectively cope with economic, academic, and social hardships they may encounter.

To conclude, economic struggles adversely affect the quality of life among low-income workers. Recently, scholars have proposed that additional attention be directed to the vocational experiences of low-income workers. Socioeconomic class is beginning to be examined in research studies, and career counselors are starting to address how their biases might influence their work with low-income clients. Additional work is needed to ensure that all individuals have access to educational and occupational opportunities.

See also:


  1. Blustein, D. L. 2001. “Extending the Reach of Vocational Psychology: Toward an Inclusive and Integrated Psychology of Working.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 59:171-182.
  2. Chaves, A. P., Diemer, M. A., Blustein, D. L., Gallagher, L. A., DeVoy, J. E., Caseres, M. T. and Perry, J. C. 2004. “Conceptions of Work: The View from Urban Youth.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 51:275-286.
  3. Heppner, M. J. and O’Brien, K. M. Forthcoming. “Women and Poverty: A Holistic Approach to Vocational Interventions.” In Career Counseling for Women, edited by W. B. Walsh and M. J. Heppner. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  4. Kenny, M. E., Blustein, D. L. and Chaves, A. 2003. “The Role of Perceived Barriers and Relational Support in the Educational and Vocational Lives of Urban High School Students”. Journal of Counseling Psychology 50:142-155.
  5. Lott, B. 2002. “Cognitive and Behavioral Distancing from the Poor.” American Psychologist 57:100-110.
  6. Worthington, R. L. and Juntenen, C. L. 1994. “The Vocational Development of Non-college-bound Youth: Counseling Psychology and the School-to-work Movement.” The Counseling Psychologist 25:323-363.