8 Lessons I Learned Living on the Minimum Wage

by Rep. Jan Schakowsky on August 6, 2014 · 7 comments

Editors Note: The following article, by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL-9), originally ran as an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times on August 4, 2014. Read the original post here.

This past week my husband and I took the Live the Wage challenge in solidarity with hard-working families who are trying to make ends meet on a minimum wage salary.  Our allotment was $77 each for the week to cover all food, transportation and other expenses excluding housing, insurance, and support for dependent children (which I don’t have). It didn’t take us long to realize that $7.25 an hour is not enough to live on. We didn’t quite make it.

To anyone who thinks this challenge is just a gimmick, I say “Try it.”

You will probably learn firsthand what I learned:

Jan Schawkosky - Live the wage challenge

The Live the Wage challenge made it clear that meat is unaffordable on a minimum wage budget.

  1. It takes meticulous planning and discipline to live on the minimum wage and still we went over by $4.47, despite the many advantages we have over a poverty wage couple.  For the week, we became hyper-sensitive to the cost of everything.
  2. All spontaneity is out the window.  Feel like a buying a cup of coffee?   Forget it.  Those pretzels in the vending machine look tempting?  Keep walking.  They’re not in the budget.
  3. There is no margin for error.  You can’t afford to get sick, miss a day of work or buy medication.  You’re in real trouble if you blow a tire, and don’t forget your lunch at home
  4. I learned the value of a dollar — it can buy a can of tuna or baked beans or a box of pasta. Fresh fruits and vegetables and meat are much harder to afford. We stretched a package of romaine and a few tomatoes to last the week.
  5. You can forget a night at the movies, going out to dinner, or inviting friends for a meal. Three of our friends actually had to bring their own Thai carry-out to our apartment while we ate a much more modest meal on the budget, an awkward arrangement most people would not choose.
  6. A car is expensive.   Driving 140 miles round trip to my granddaughter’s birthday party took a big chunk of the budget, and we didn’t need to count car insurance or maintenance.
  7. Pets are luxury.  Our family dog Lucky is disabled and his needs quite expensive.
  8. We didn’t have enough money to pick up our dry cleaning, nor could we do our laundry in the coin operated washer and dryer in our DC apartment building.

This was just a week, but we got a small taste of how hard — how impossible — it is to survive on $7.25.  The minimum wage for “tip” workers, those who supposedly reach at least $7.25 per hour through tips, is an astounding $2.13 per hour, a rate that hasn’t been raised for 20 years!

Heather from Chicago is a real life 365 days-a-year minimum wage worker and she says, “Increasing the minimum wage would provide just another bit of relief — I wouldn’t constantly worry if I can afford to go to the doctor or buy food for the week.”

Heather and millions of other workers desperately need and deserve a raise and should not have to wait any longer.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bill August 7, 2014 at 10:44 am

Of course it is hard, maybe impossible, to live on a minimum wag job. Who ever said that working a minimum wage job was supposed to be a long-term career? These positions have traditionally been summer jobs, part-time jobs, and entry-level jobs. Often, they are unskilled positions.

HIgh school students were making spending money, college students may be earning tuition money, and regular members of the work force were adding a second income. That’s what minimum wage was all about.

Now, if our economy is eliminating real jobs for skilled workers, then Congress and state legislatures should pass meaasures to bring relief to businesses so that they can hire skilled workers. If unskilled workers lack education or job skills to compete for higher paying jobs, then they should contact their state’s department of labor for free job training programs.

BTW, most minimum wage workers don’t have insurance. How much would you save by eliminating that from your budget? Would you then be able to do your laundry?

2 Organized1 August 7, 2014 at 4:49 pm

We notice you said, “a small taste of how hard” then corrected (but should’ve been erased) by saying “how impossible” it is to survive. Just remember though, WHATEVER you raise the minimum to, that it needs to be high enough to make a difference after the LOSS in our pockets from the additional taxes we’ll have to pay. Otherwise, you’ll just be filling the coffers of the tax collectors and not our purses.

3 Cynthia Goodson August 8, 2014 at 11:44 am

I can so empathize with people who survive on such meager salaries. My children survive daily living this way. They can’t afford new school clothes, new sneakers, books, book bags and my grandchild never goes on school trips unless he gets help from me or my mother. School pictures and all the other extras that most kids take for granted, my grandchild knows better than to ask him mother for. It is disheartening, we help them as much as possible, but as a single person on my own, it is hard to help as much as I would like.

4 Sanford Trado August 8, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Findings are misleading in context and theory! When did minimum wage become a “living wage”? When I was growing up minimum wage was for part-time, high school and college students, and non-career workers. It is now expected that everyone who works regardless of experience, education and training should be earning a living wage. A living wage is received from years of experience, training education, and career type work. I know of certain career positions that paid their college educated employees roughly $18 an hour. What do you say to a college educated employee making between $15 and $20 an hour that a someone flipping burgers, serving coffee or cutting a lawn. To think minimum wages is to live on is a misguided expectation.

5 Stuart August 10, 2014 at 3:37 am

It would be easier (note: not necessarily EASY, just EASIER) to live on minimum wage in some parts of the country than others. I live in Idaho, which has federal minimum wage in effect, and I would consider $7.25/hour much fairer here than in other parts of the country (like Chicago, where the op-ed was printed). But that underscores the problem with having a national minimum wage; a wage that is fair to both employers and employees in one part of the U.S. is not necessarily so in other parts of the U.S.. Granted, many states have enacted their own minimum wage laws to help resolve this problem in their area, but the cost of living can even vary from place to place even WITHIN a specific state. I personally think for this reason more city-level minimum wage laws (like one recently enacted in SeaTac, WA, for example) will become more commonplace in the future.

6 paket tour bali September 12, 2014 at 3:15 am

Good learn live in minimum wage. But sometimes minimum standard in your country still more good compare from my country. I live very very hard.

7 Sarah November 23, 2014 at 10:21 pm

I am honestly so tired of hearing “back in my day minimum wage jobs were for teenagers! it’s not meant to be a living wage”. Okay, sorry but this is NOW? And it’s completely different. 1/4 of all private sector workers make at or below ten dollars an hour. In Kentucky, people age 14 -19 make up 8% of the minimum wage workforce. 18% of all minimum wage workers in Kentucky are OVER the age of 50! These jobs ARE NOT MEANT for teenagers anymore. Do you know who is working these jobs? Women. Families. Adults. It’s incredible to me that people just sit here and let corporations shit all over them.

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