Low-Wage Jobs Limit Workers’ Access to Resources

Workers in low-wage jobs are less likely to receive health-promoting resources.

Work provides income and benefits essential for accessing health-promoting goods and services, such as stable housing, healthy food, medical care, and life-saving prescriptions (Burgard & Lin, 2015).

Simply put, workers in low-wage jobs have less access to these important resources because they earn less. Studies show that those who have lower incomes experience poorer health outcomes (Gunasekara et al., 2011), including hypertension (Du & Leigh, 2012) and obesity (Kim & Leigh, 2010). Material deprivation is also associated with debilitating chronic illness as well as health-compromising behavior and mortality (Tøge & Bell, 2016; Eibner & Evans, 2005). In the landmark Whitehall health studies among British Civil Servants, Sir Michael Marmot found that working in lower employment grades with lower incomes was associated with higher rates of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, obesity, smoking, and self-rated average or poor health (Marmot, 1991).

In addition to a lower income, low-wage jobs are less likely to provide benefits such as health insurance, paid sick leave, and retirement (BLS, 2018). Access to health insurance means people seek health care, which increases preventative check-ups, chronic disease management, and improved self-rated health (Sommers et al., 2017; Wherry & Miller, 2016; Freeman et al., 2008). Low-wage jobs limit access to paid sick leave. For example, Latine workers who worked with no or limited sick leave were less likely to take time off when sick or injured and more likely to delay or forgo treatment, all of which may lead to worse health (DeRigne et al., 2016). This also has consequences for other workers since infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, spread in the workplace.

At the population level, the presence of low-wage jobs exacerbates income inequality, which has negative influences on health. Income inequality harms health by juxtaposing severe limits to resources for one group of people—low-wage and marginalized workers, disproportionately people of color—with an extreme abundance of resources for others. One study found that people living in regions with greater income inequality had poorer self-rated health and died sooner than their counterparts living in regions with less inequality (Kondo et al., 2009). While it is clear that growing inequality is harmful to low-wage workers, it also has widespread repercussions that harm all members of society by eroding social cohesion (Subramanian & Kawachi, 2006).

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