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Here's What Our Minimum Wage Nation Looks Like

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Second-quarter gross domestic product numbers popping at 4% last week and a strong stock market where the Dow Jones Industrial Average is above 16,500 and it would be reasonable to think the economy is on a path of significant forward progress.

But tell that to the millions of Americans battling low hourly wages and paltry paychecks that don't come close to covering their financial needs.

According to data from the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service's Demographics Research Group, 32% of all U.S. employees (or about 21 million workers) earn less than $10.10 per hour. Over the course of one 35-hour work week, that amounts to slightly over $353 per week for these hourly workers, and that doesn't even cover taxes and health care costs.

More from the study:

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  • One-half of low-wage workers work 35 hours or more per week and almost one-half work either in retail or food service jobs.
  • Four out of five do not have any type of college or technical degree.
  • More than one-half (56 percent) are in the prime working ages of 26-64 years old.
  • Almost six out of 10 are female. Compared to their representation in the total population, whites are underrepresented among low-wage workers (50 percent), while Blacks and Hispanics are overrepresented (at 25 percent and 15 percent, respectively).
  • One in four is a parent living with a young or school-aged child.
  • Three out of 10 live in or near poverty.

The $10.10 figure is named by the study because President Barack Obama is campaigning to raise the national minimum wage to that figure, fought by a reluctant GOP-held House of Representatives. But University of Virginia researchers say that even getting to $10.10 per hour really doesn't cover much in terms of household living costs across much of the nation.

"As we consider the impact of raising the minimum wage, it is important to realize this is complicated territory," says Megan Juelfs-Swanson, lead researcher on the study. "While an hourly worker can be a contractor in Northern Virginia working 60 hours per week earning very high hourly wages, nearly one-third of hourly workers nationwide earn less than $10.10 an hour."

Still, advocates for a minimum wage say that a wage hike, even an incremental one, may help ease the economic pain for the 32% who don't make $10.10 per hour.

"The diversity in economic circumstances for low-wage workers illustrates that a minimum wage increase will have differential impacts across households and individuals," says Qian Cai, director of the Demographics Research Group. "Any increase in the minimum wage provides essential protection against economic distress, particularly for the one-half who are the only or primary earners in the household."

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