What is Low Wage Work?

What Is Low Wage Work?

Broke and HungryVista en Español

“There are two main ways to define a low-wage worker.  The first compares different workers, and a low-wage worker is defined as someone who earns less than two-thirds of the median hourly wage for full-time workers.  The median hourly for the Santa Cruz/Watsonville metro area was $17.81 in 2014, two-thirds of which is $11.88."[1]

However, this first definition does not take into account a worker’s expenses. Thus a second definition, which we use throughout this study, compares a worker’s wage to the local cost of living. By this second definition, a low wage worker is someone whose hourly wage would not place them above the poverty line for a family of four if s/he worked fulltime. Based on the California Poverty Measure designed by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, which takes into account variation in the cost of living and, particularly, the high cost of housing in California, the poverty level for a family of 4 in Santa Cruz County is a yearly income of $32,884.[2] This yearly income translates into an hourly rate of pay of $15.81. Therefore, for this study, the definition of a low wage worker is someone who earns an hourly wage of less than $15.81. We note that based on the California Poverty Measure, 22% of households in Santa Cruz County fall below the poverty line.


  1. 1. May 2014 Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Area Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates – US Bureau of Labor Statistics http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_42100.htm#00-0000
  2. “The California Poverty Measure: A Portrait of Poverty within California Counties and Demographic Groups". 2013. Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality http://web.stanford.edu/group/scspi/poverty/cpm/CPMBrief_CPI.pdf