Barriers to Employment: Jobs and the Costs of Living

In our series on the Opportunity Collaborative’s Barriers to Employment Report, we have covered a number of different areas, including transportation, criminal records, and training and education. When over 1,000 job seekers were asked to list their barriers to employment opportunity, though, the number one response was, “The jobs I find don’t pay enough to cover my basic costs of living.” More than three out of every five workers participating in the survey considered this to be a problem for them, with more than 30% rating it as a major barrier.

The study’s findings confirmed what these people were experiencing:

• “There are practically no entry-level jobs for people with less than a Bachelor’s degree that pay a family-supporting wage ($22 per hour).
• There are limited job and career opportunities that lead from entry-level jobs to mid-skill jobs (requiring less than a Bachelor’s degree) that offer a living wage (6).”

Not only are there almost no opportunities for people without a college degree to start at a living wage, but there are also very few options to begin in that type of position and move up into a better job. The forecast for the future does not project much change; the study notes that, of the new jobs expected to be created between 2012 and 2020, nearly all of those that do not require at least some college education will have average wages that are less than a living wage (7).

Low wages and low incomes also play an important role in a number of the other barriers to employment opportunity, including not being able to afford professional clothes and other job necessities; the cost of training and education being too high; not having reliable transportation options; and a lack of permanent housing. Without good jobs, people are unable to pay for everything that is necessary to get, and keep, a good job – creating a cycle which prevents some people, and communities, from connecting to the opportunities which are available in the region.

The goal of the Regional Workforce Development Plan is to create strategies to overcome these obstacles, and the study does offer action areas where concerted efforts can make a difference. In particular, Career Pathways, which focus on looking at an entire sector to determine where opportunities exist, offer a proven method for helping people to not only get jobs, but to be working towards jobs with living wages. This approach, which will be detailed for the transportation and logistics sector in another Opportunity Collaborative report, helps workers obtain the skills that they need, simplifies the training process, and provides wrap-around services to make sure that people with multiple barriers are also able to find career opportunities.

As well as providing the training and services necessary for the existing jobs, though, we need economic development efforts focused on attracting new positions with living wages to the region, such as the ones identified in the Regional Talent Development Pipeline Study. Also, with so many jobs being created in other areas like the service sector, ensuring that those jobs pay wages which cover people’s costs of living strengthens not only those households, but the neighborhoods where they live. The recent agreement between SEIU and Johns Hopkins Hospital, which raises wages for the lowest-paid jobs at one of the region’s largest employers, will have a positive impact on the communities where those workers live throughout Baltimore – neighborhoods, not coincidentally, where low median incomes are one of the biggest challenges. By cooperating at a regional level to attract new jobs, connect people with the skills and services they need for those positions, and make sure that the wages paid are enough for housing, transportation, and other household needs, we can work towards a Baltimore where everyone has access to good jobs.

To learn more about the Opportunity Collaborative, contact Steve Holt at

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Steve Holt

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