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For low-wage workers, the walls continue to close in

CHATTANOOGA – At 7 in the morning, they are already lined up – poultry plant workers, housekeepers, discount store clerks – to ask for help paying their heating bills or feeding their families.

And once Metropolitan Ministries opens at 8 a.m., these workers fill the charity’s 40 chairs, with a bawling infant adding to the commotion. From pockets and handbags they pull out utility bills or rent statements and hand them over to caseworkers, who often write checks – $80, $110, $150 – to patch over gaps in meeting this month’s expenses or filling the gas tank to get to work.

Just off her 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, Erika McCurdy needed help last month with her electricity and heating bill, which jumped to $280 in January from the usual $120 – a result of one of the coldest winters in memory. A nurse’s aide at an assisted living facility, McCurdy said there were many weeks when she couldn’t make ends meet raising her 19-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter.

“There’s just no way, making $9 an hour as a single parent with two children, that I can live without assistance,” said McCurdy, 40, a strong-voiced, solidly built Chattanooga native.

She was so financially stretched, she said, that she and her daughter often sneaked into her son’s high school football games free during halftime because she couldn’t afford the $6 tickets.

Having worked as a nurse’s aide for 15 years, McCurdy has been among the nearly 25 million workers in the United States who make less than $10.10 an hour – the amount to which President Barack Obama supports increasing the minimum wage. Of those workers, 3.5 million make the $7.25 federal minimum wage or less.

And like many of them, McCurdy hasn’t been able to rely on steady full-time hours – she has often been assigned just 20 hours a week. Even if she worked full time year-round, her $9 hourly wage would put her below the poverty threshold of $19,530 for a family of three.

Climbing above the poverty line has become more daunting in recent years, as the composition of the nation’s low-wage workforce has been transformed by the Great Recession, shifting demographics and other factors. More than half of those who make $9 or less an hour are 25 or older, while the proportion who are teenagers has declined to just 17 percent from 28 percent in 2000, after adjusting for inflation, according to Janelle Jones and John Schmitt of the Center for Economic Policy Research.

Today’s low-wage workers also are more educated, with 41 percent having at least some college, up from 29 percent in 2000. “Minimum-wage and low-wage workers are older and more educated than 10 or 20 years ago, yet they’re making wages below where they were 10 or 20 years ago after inflation,” said Schmitt, senior economist at the research center. “If you look back several decades, workers near the minimum wage were more likely to be teenagers – that’s the stereotype people had. It’s definitely not accurate anymore.”

The prevalence of low-wage jobs has contributed to the high poverty rate in many cities. In Chattanooga, 27 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, compared with 15 percent nationwide. In Buffalo, the poverty rate is at 30.1 percent. Only Cleveland and Detroit are higher.

When Volkswagen opened a $1 billion assembly plant in Chattanooga in 2011, 80,000 people applied for 2,000 jobs paying an average of $19.50 an hour. Many low-wage workers would have loved to work there, but they faced difficulty mastering the math tests given for jobs that involve advanced machinery.

“We understand that more individuals have to get some kind of higher education degree or certificate to have a chance in this world,” said Chattanooga’s mayor, Andy Berke. “We don’t want the South to be a place where businesses go to find low-wage, low-education jobs. That’s a long-term problem that midsized cities in the South face.”

But a college degree cannot guarantee a good job.

Landon Howard graduated from the University of Tennessee campus here four years ago with a bachelor’s degree in social work, but has been unable to find a job in that field. Instead he is a prep cook at the trendy Tupelo Honey Cafe. Often scheduled for just 15 to 20 hours a week at $9.50 an hour, he usually takes home less than $200 a week.

At age 34, Nick Mason earns $9 an hour as an assistant manager for a Domino’s, overseeing a crew of six. “I don’t think $9 is fair – I’ve been working in the pizza business for 19 years, since I was 15,” he said.

He attended the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, studying to become a registered nurse, but he dropped out as a sophomore when his marriage fell apart. He returned to work full time, and he and his children moved in with his parents in the suburb of Hixson.

“I just wish we could have our home, but I can’t afford to,” said Mason, father of 7-year-old Halle and 5-year-old Eli. “That’s what the kids keep asking for.”

Mason has heard the criticisms: Stop complaining about your pay; just go back to school and that way you’ll find a better-paying job.

“I would love to go back to school,” he said. “It’s easy for people to say that because they haven’t been in my shoes. I’m already busy every minute of the day. I already don’t get to see my kids enough. I doubt I’ll be able to afford school, and I don’t know where I would find the time.”