Study Finds More Americans Working Long Hours

The prosperity many American families enjoy is due not only to rising wages but to more family members working—especially among black and Hispanic families, a new study says.

The study by the Economic Policy Institute, a union-supported think tank, found that an average middle-class family’s income rose by 9.2 percent, after inflation, from 1989 to 1998. But they also spent 6.8 percent more time at work to reap it.

Without increased earnings from wives, the study’s authors concluded, the average middle-class family’s income would have risen only 3.6 percent over the decade.

Government figures show that while the average full-time worker’s work week has remained fairly steady at about 43 hours, the share of married women working full-time rose from 41 percent in 1989 to 46 percent in 1998.

The EPI study said middle-class black families work an average of 9.4 hours more per week than their white counterparts. Blacks work more hours than whites at every income level, said economist Larry Mishel, a co-author.

“To be black in America is to work more just to keep up,” he said.

Rich Hispanics Work Most

The study also found that middle-class Hispanic families work five hours more per week than their white counterparts.

Upper-income Hispanic families work the most of any group in any economic class, putting in 12.9 hours more per week than whites, the study said. Other ethnic groups were not profiled in the study.

The statistics, based on Labor Department figures, are part of a biennial report, “The State of Working America,” to be published in January.

While advocates for workers portray the extra hours at work as a grim necessity to keep even, business groups say they more represent pursuit of the American dream.

Is Overtime Voluntary?

Martin Regalia, chief economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said much of the increase in work time is voluntary, as workers choose to earn more and move up economically.

“We’re not the rats on a treadmill; we’re the rats that built the treadmill,” he said. “There’s a very, very big difference between making a choice to run faster today so we can take it easy tomorrow versus being forced to run faster just to stay even.”

Richard L. Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, called Regalia’s comment “absolutely ridiculous,” saying several recent strikes over forced overtime show that many Americans want to spend less time on the job.

“The American worker wants to spend time with their family,” he said. “They value that time and they’re spending more and more time on the job.”

Labor Secretary Alexis Herman said she has heard many of those same claims.

“I hear from working Americans that they’re working, often times, longer and harder,” she said. “I hear from working families that they need more help to balance work and family demands.”

Wages Did Grow

The EPI study also found that:

From 1995 to 1999, average hourly wages grew 2.6 percent per year, far exceeding annual gains in the previous six years. Wages for workers in the lowest 10 percent of the work force rose 9.3 percent, while wages for the top 5 percent of workers rose 8.5 percent.

In 1998, 18.9 percent of American children lived in poverty, down from 19.6 percent in 1989 but still higher than the 16.4 percent it was in 1979.

Middle-class families held 2.8 percent of the total growth in stock market holdings between 1989 and 1998, but accounted for 38.8 percent of the rise in household debt.

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