This story was originally published in the Memphis Flyer.
For 17 years, Zorina Bowen was a research biochemist. She was good at what she did and loved her job. But in 2006, University of Tennessee Health Science Center laid her off, and she’s struggled to get by ever since.
Her pay shrunk from nearly $30 an hour to less than $10 an hour for part-time work in the home health-care industry.
“I went from sequencing DNA to emptying bed pans,” says the 57-year-old single mother.
Part of Bowen’s story is familiar: It’s the testimony of the shrinking middle class, of good jobs lost and replaced by ones that don’t pay enough to make ends meet. Less noted is the psychological impact, how a changing economy can rattle even the most secure person’s self-esteem.
Bowen is quick to point out: She doesn’t think she’s too good to work as a caregiver — bathing, dressing, and cooking for her elderly client. All work has value, she says, “but the thing is, what is its value to you? Does it challenge you? Does it stimulate you, or are you just going through the motions?”
The slow decline in the federal, state, and local unemployment rate doesn’t capture the 12.5 percent of Americans who are underemployed. For African Americans like Bowen, the underemployment rate is estimated to be as high as 25 percent.
Bowen wants a job that requires the degree she earned. She needs full-time hours. In the years since she left the lab, she hasn’t been able to find either. She’s worked as an administrative assistant at nonprofit organizations, a substitute teacher, and a tutor at an afterschool program.
“I was basically taking any job I could get.”
It was a long way from her years in the lab, including years at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“My job was to find the dose range to kill off the cancer cells without killing off too many of the normal cells,” she says. She can still rattle off the names of the drugs she worked on, and when she does, she looks happy. But her reminiscing soon gives way to reality. She sounds more like an economist than a scientist as she laments the economic reality for people trapped in low-wage jobs.
“Adjusted for inflation, we’re not making as much as we were in the 1970s,” she says. “Everything has gone up but wages.”
According to the 2015 Assets and Opportunity Scorecard released last month, Tennessee is one of 26 states where more than 25 percent of the jobs are low-wage.
According to the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED), which compiles the annual scorecard, Tennessee ranks 43rd in the country for the number of policies adopted to help state residents gain financial security. In several states, 2015 brought increases above the federal minimum wage, but not in Tennessee. In fact, the state has no minimum wage law.
So while national campaigns to raise the pay for fast-food workers to $15 an hour are great ideas, Bowen still doesn’t believe that would be enough.
“Let’s see what it really actually takes to live out here and adjust wages accordingly,” Bowen says. “Because anything under $20 [an hour] is not making it.”
Her advice to her two daughters: Be prepared for anything. Have a job and a side gig. Save not for a rainy day — but seasons after seasons of hurricanes.
“If I’d known then what I know now, I probably would have tried to squirrel away more,” Bowen says. “It was a six-month cushion, not a six-year cushion.”
According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, if the minimum wage had kept up with inflation, it’d be $10.52 an hour, which is about what she makes now. But if the minimum wage had kept pace with worker productivity, it’d be $21.72 an hour. States that increase their minimum wages, the center found, had higher employment growth.
Even with subsidies, Bowen can’t afford health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Earlier this month, a legislative committee killed Insure Tennessee, Governor Bill Haslam’s plan to accept Medicaid expansion funds.
When she sees politicians dither over increasing the minimum wage or other measures that help her make ends meet, it makes her angry.
“They don’t have a clue,” Bowen says. “They don’t know what it’s really like out here. … They figure people are poor because they want to be.”