Ms. Ings had worked in a variety of office and administrative roles in the wholesale tuxedo industry. Her wages of just over $16 an hour were enough to build a relatively comfortable life for her and her daughter, Jillian, now 21 and in college.
“During her whole growing up, I never got child support,” Ms. Ings said. “I always had to try to find a job that paid well to help support her. That’s my job, being a mother.”
When Ms. Ings was laid off in March 2009, she dove into finding another “corporate job.” But she found that nearly everyone seemed to be looking for people with at least a college degree, if not more. She had only a high school diploma.
As a teenager, Ms. Ings had worked in a nursing home and enjoyed it. So, after getting her certified nursing assistant license, she applied at the Home Instead office in Lexington, which has been steadily hiring, said Jack Cross, the franchise owner. Nationally, the company has created more than 2,400 jobs this year, and home health aides are one of the country’s fastest growing occupations.
Ms. Ings adores her job, but her finances remain taut, even though she is working 50 hours a week. She had been without health insurance for her first few months, but soon the company will begin deducting for it — a further pinch on her already meager paycheck.
“I’m going to be coming home with nothing,” she said.
In Arkansas, Ms. Nelson has been hampered by her decision several years ago to quit college after a semester. She has worked a variety of jobs, including a three-year stint as a secretary, earning about $12 an hour.
Last year, she and her husband, Kenneth, and their son, Riley, now almost 2, moved to Colton, Calif., where they had relatives and believed the job market would be better. They moved back to Arkansas this year, however, after struggling to find steady work.
He quickly accepted a factory job at $8 an hour, but she got rejection after rejection trying to find office work.
Ms. Nelson eventually gave up and took up waitressing. The couple is living with her mother, trying to save enough for their own place.
“I don’t know, with the jobs we have, if we’re ever going to be able to make it on our own,” Ms. Nelson said.