- Associated Press - Sunday, April 6, 2014

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - A month after Natalie Vazquez lost the best-paying job she’d ever had, it looked like her luck was about to turn.

At a job fair on a sunny Tuesday, the 27-year-old Miami native sailed through a screening for a $9-an-hour job at a suburban call center.

That afternoon, she made it to her first shift at a Midtown barbecue restaurant, where she makes $7.25 an hour. She hadn’t worked in food service since she was a teenager, but she was out of money. Her phone bill, rent and car note were almost due.

The next morning, as Vazquez drove to an interview for the better-paying job at the call center, her car ran out of gas.

Across town in a South Memphis rooming house, Lydia Omogun touched her head and made a confession: The reddish curly hair is a wig.

Last fall, her home health care employer paid her $4,000 less than she was owed, she said.

Unable to pay her bills, Omogun, 54, was evicted from her duplex with a view of a tree-filled park. Her car was repossessed and her hair surrendered to the stress.

Embarrassed by her appearance but with no money to spend on food, Omogun borrowed a wig from her son’s girlfriend.

Vazquez and Omogun are two of the nation’s 16.7 million low-wage workers.

Officially, the Great Recession ended in 2009. In Tennessee, unemployment rates have dipped.

Yet income inequality - defined as the gap between what the poorest make and the wealthiest bring home - is as high today as it was in 1928, just before the start of the Great Depression.

America has promised its citizens that in return for hard work, workers will earn enough to buy a home, save for their children’s education and their own retirement, President Barack Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address.

“The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive,” he said. “No challenge is more urgent.”

But even as corporate profits soar, housing and transportation costs devour a growing share of the working poor’s income. The economy is adding millions of new jobs, but in low-skill occupations that pay sustenance wages.

Rising income inequality translates into shrinking economic mobility. Research shows that 70 percent of Americans born into poverty never make it to the middle class.

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