Working and Still Poor

When you try living on $77 a week for food, transportation, and entertainment—the budget of a minimum-wage worker—spending on things that many take for granted requires tough choices and carries significant consequences.

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People rally for an increase in the minimum wage in Albany, New York. (AP/Mike Groll)
People rally for an increase in the minimum wage in Albany, New York. (AP/Mike Groll)

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite Washington, D.C. restaurants was celebrating its 35th anniversary with a special deal: a three-course dinner for $35. Since entrees at this particular restaurant run in the $35 to $40 range, the deal was too good to resist. So I made reservations, had a delicious meal with a friend, and felt incredibly satisfied as I paid the bill.

At work the next day, some of my colleagues were talking about another anniversary—one that marked five years since Congress last raised the minimum wage. My colleagues discussed a campaign they were helping to launch called “Live the Wage,” a challenge inviting people across the country to live on $77 for food, transportation, and entertainment—similar to the budget of a minimum-wage worker—for a week. A person working full time at a minimum-wage job earns $290 a week—after taking out housing costs and taxes, that leaves about $77.

I listened and thought of my dinner the night before. The $35 bargain immediately became impossibly unaffordable. If I were a minimum-wage worker who’d splurged on that meal, I would have only $42 left for the entire week—or $6 a day for food, transportation, and entertainment.

The Live the Wage challenge launched last week, giving the many Americans who are participating a real-life lesson in just how difficult it is to live on a job that pays the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. Cutting coupons to save on groceries becomes essential. So does checking the price of every item before purchasing it. Public transportation costs quickly eat into the weekly budget. Forget grabbing a bite at a local restaurant or going to the movies.

Small actions, such as having a friend over for dinner, buying a muffin and coffee for breakfast, or putting fresh fruits and vegetables into your grocery cart, have large consequences. Life becomes an insistent calculator where every penny counts.

Of course, for the millions of Americans who work minimum-wage jobs—and the millions more whose jobs pay slightly more than minimum wage—such experiences last longer than a week. They are simply life.

There are many urgent reasons to raise the minimum wage. One is basic fairness. Today’s CEOs make 774 times what minimum-wage workers earn, which is blatantly unjust. After all, no corporate head is worth that much. In fact, they wouldn’t be where they are without the productivity of the workers under them. In addition, such a wage imbalance knocks our economy out of whack and hurts economic growth. When everyday workers are struggling to survive, they have no money to spend as consumers, hurting both businesses and our entire economy.

America has always been a country that promised opportunity and upward mobility to those who work hard and play by the rules. Stagnant wages—despite increased worker productivity—renege on this promise. By now, all of us should know that the trickle-down theory of economics simply doesn’t work. Prosperity doesn’t come from the top down, but from strong working- and middle-class Americans who are the backbone of our economy. Furthermore, raising the minimum wage would save taxpayers money by reducing the need for social safety net programs.

The Live the Wage website includes the voices and experiences of low-wage workers who struggle every day just to get by. Here is what two of them have to say:

Janet Rowland, a single mother of three makes $7.50 an hour and is taking business classes:

Most months, it’s hard for me to have enough money to get through the next paycheck. Every time I try to put a bit of money away in savings, it seems that an emergency just comes up and I’m back down again at square one. … I’d prefer to have the money to be independent and take care of my family but I just can’t do it on my current wage. We need the government to raise the wage so families like mine can earn an income that allows us to be stable and work our way up, not living in constant fear that I’m not going to get my kids their next meal. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Jacob Keele works 55 to 60 hours a week at two different jobs:

I think a lot of us making minimum wage feel like we’re being cheated and I wish lawmakers would put themselves in our shoes. I think if they spent some time looking at the situation from our perspective, they would realize it’s just not possible to support yourself living on the current minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage would not give us anything that anyone would consider luxuries. We would still need to work hard to make ends meet. But a higher wage would put food on our table when there isn’t any. It would allow us to look for a place to live in a safer community. These are basic things that would allow us to live a decent life.

I wanted to join the Live the Wage campaign. Then I looked at the calendar and realized that it fell on the same week that I would be on vacation—one that I had long been looking forward to. As I thought about what it would mean to live on $77 during my vacation—knowing, of course, that vacations are generally out of reach for many minimum-wage workers—I decided not to participate in the challenge. Then it struck me that this decision itself is a luxury that millions in our country cannot afford.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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