Giving a Hand Up to Minimum-Wage Workers

by Seth Harris on April 25, 2013 · 5 comments

Since President Obama’s State of the Union address in February, I’ve traveled across the country meeting workers trying to survive while earning at or near the minimum wage. Everywhere I’ve gone their stories have been similarly poignant and powerful – hardworking Americans forced to decide which bill to pay, which meal to skip or which relative to borrow money from that month. Every time I hear a worker share his or her story, I’m more convinced than ever that the president’s proposal to raise the national minimum wage to $9 (and index it to inflation thereafter) is the right thing to do – not just morally, but economically as well.

Acting Secretary Seth Harris talks with low-wage workers in Phoenix, April 18, 2013.

Last week I visited Phoenix and Las Vegas. While both states have mechanisms that could raise their state minimum wages above the federal floor, workers in both places shared experiences that were strikingly similar to the stories I heard from workers in any of the cities I had visited previously.

In Phoenix, I met with workers at UMOM New Day Centers, a local nonprofit that provides safe shelter and other support services for homeless families. Many of the residents living at UMOM are working – several of them full-time – at or near the minimum wage. They cannot afford their own places to live.

The first four workers who spoke were single mothers. Three working moms had utilized UMOM’s services at one point or another. Stephanie currently is studying to become a dental hygienist, while working at the minimum wage, in hopes of eventually landing a better-paying job. Anita has a degree in economics and four children, two of whom have special needs. She’s regularly forced to choose between working enough hours to put food on the table and accompanying her kids to a long list of doctor’s appointments.

Stacey shares his story with acting Secretary Harris at the Las Vegas roundtable, April 18, 2013.

In Las Vegas, at a local church that serves as a hub for many of the area’s social services, I talked with workers doing everything they can to get by on paychecks that never allow them to catch up. Kineta, whose job at a national retail chain pays near the state minimum wage, has been working since she was 11. “Working is in my blood,” she told me. “But every year I feel like I make less.” When Kineta can’t afford her blood pressure medication, she either goes without or borrows similar medication from friends – whether or not the dosage is right. Stacey has sold his blood when his paycheck didn’t cover his monthly expenses. Thankfully, he has family in the area; otherwise, he would have no childcare options when he has to work.

I also met a trio of young people in Las Vegas doing everything that our society is asking of them – attempting to finish school or learn specialized skills at a local culinary academy – but still living in a youth homeless shelter. Like several of the workers in Phoenix, these individuals relied on a community organization to provide a roof over their heads. This situation is a reality for too many hardworking Americans. At the very least, we should be able to agree that if someone is working, they shouldn’t be homeless. Colby, age 22, put the hardship in terms all of us could understand. “This shirt I’m wearing?” he began. “I’ve had it since I was 18, and these shoes since I was 17. The only thing I know I have to have is food.”

Corey talks to acting Secretary Harris at the Las Vegas roundtable, April 18, 2013.

In Phoenix, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Tampa, Boston, Orlando, Cleveland and Philadelphia, I’ve met workers of every age, race, ethnicity and background. In superficial ways, they could have not been more different. But what unites all of them is this: the desire to work hard and the opportunity to make life better for themselves and their families. Too many of them are stuck at a wage that forces them to depend on the generosity of community organizations, family, friends or government just to stay above water. I haven’t met anyone who is looking for a handout. To the contrary, they just want a fair wage so they don’t have to rely on others.

Gloria, another mother who joined me at the Phoenix roundtable, said, “As mothers, we show our kids that when things get tough, moms get tougher.” Across the table, Anita seemed to finish her thought.  “You can’t judge people who are working but still need a little bit of help. A raise in the minimum wage is just about fairness, and about giving people a fighting chance to achieve the American Dream.”

Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Roberta April 26, 2013 at 9:05 am

I disagree with the philosphy of increasing minimum wage to, as the last sentence says, “give people a fighting chance to achieve the American Dream”. The American Dream is achieved not only through hard work, but through innovation and motivation. People have to not only work hard, but get an education (so they DON’T have to work for minimum wage).
This is the number one problem in the nation today. Too many people choose not to go to school, choose to have children in their teens, or drop out of high school, etc., but then expect to have a nice home, car, clothes, free health care.
Before anyone says I don’t understand. I do. I was raised poor. Very poor. I had my first child at 17. But I also went to school – and worked two jobs while going – I never took hand outs and I don’t have to work for anywhere near minimum wage.
The “tools” these people need are an education in understanding the possibility for advancement is there. They are not limited, but they also can’t expect to continue to work at low end jobs and expect to achieve anything. If minimum wage goes up – everything else does too. You end up right back where you started if you are a minimum wage worker.

2 Ron Brown April 26, 2013 at 11:17 am

Many times, working for minimum wage is a “choice” based upon the choices we have made in our lives. I, too, one of eight children (7th) was raised on a farm in a rural area in the South; my family was poor; we just didn’t know that we were poor. However, I did not let this undeniable fact stigmatize my life for the rest of my career. My single mother (3rd grade education and divorced after 8 children and 29 years of marriage) instilled in me something that I will never, never forget. She made sure my siblings and I wore clean clothes to school (although many times – “patched”); she made sure we got up early enough to do our chores before school; she made sure we did our homework; she took an active role in our homework; she made sure we knew our responsibilities on the farm; and, she made sure of one other startling fact: we must get our education and work. She made sure we also knew “nothing in life was free”. In fact, she was eligible for “food stamps”, but refused because she was able to work on the farm and provide without “governmental” assistance.
I say all this to get to the crux of the matter. Yes, I too started out on minimum wage; but, I was not content with continuing down that path. In hindsight, I viewed that as a “short-term” stepping stone. After high school graduation, I was the first of my entire family generation to enter and graduate from college. During my college days, I continued to work full-time and go to college full-time and borrowing money for student loans. Those were long days – exhausting, but rewarding. Upon college graduation, I was able to enter the full-time working world with a local manufacturer – starting at a decent wage – well above minimum wage. And now, after 40+ years, that “investment” of minimum wage, working full-time, sacrificing, and applying my energies and talents to a long term goal has paid off. And, by the way, I PAID BACK IN FULL WITH INTEREST MY STUDENT LOAN.
So, my message to others. Pull yourselves up by “your boot straps”. Don’t let others dictate what you can or cannot do. If you believe you’re the victim; guess what, you will become the victim. If you’re willing to rise above your current state, that positive approach will produce untold rewards.
So, minimum wage has its place. Government does not produce jobs. Government’s role is not to tell us how to live our lives. As the preamble to our Constitution states: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. Nowhere does it state government’s role is to provide “minimum wage”. That’s the responsibility of the “free market”. Let’s allow the “free market” to continue to do what it does best – competition for the labor market will drive wages and benefits. Don’t expect someone to hand it to you on a silver platter.

3 Peter Mantu April 26, 2013 at 11:56 am

Oh @Ron Brown, you couldn’t have said it better. “Many times, working for minimum wage is a “choice” based upon the choices we have made in our lives. I, too, one of eight children (7th) was raised on a farm in a rural area in the South; my family was poor; we just didn’t know that we were poor. However, I did not let this undeniable fact stigmatize my life for the rest of my career.”

I really think that giving out a hand without a proper intention to inspiration is purely a promotion of “poverty”. We are merely promoting what we intend to eradicate.
That’s just my opinion…

4 Gary Patterson May 11, 2013 at 8:56 am

Increase minimum wage, living expenses will go up, so this will do no good for minimum wage workers. I cannot stand people who give irrational comments such as, “Go to school,” etc. That is unrealistic, everyone can not achieve the American Dream, it is reality. Yes, there are those of us that work hard and that are motivated, but everyone is different. Everyone cannot be a millionaire and some of us have to stay up all night looking for jobs on sites like because we just lost are job.

5 Amy June 9, 2013 at 2:28 pm

@ Ron Brown I agree with Mr. Patterson. I have a disability,but was denied SSI. They told me because I had graduated from high school and had worked I could be retrained to do something else. So therefore I don’t deserve SSI even though I would’ve gotten it when I was younger and if I had not chosen to try to work in spite of my disability. I’m not saying I can’t be retrained, but what I’m saying is if you’re disabled and get injured you should be able to collect your SSI without having to be completely disabled to do so. I cannot lift anything above 10 lbs now and that makes it hard to find even a low wage job now as they want to work you like a slave for minimum wage. I worked for 14 years in low paying jobs and performed my job very well, but my “freemarket” employers never wanted to give me a raise. As long as a company pays you minimum wage they never have to give you a raise ever and the ones i worked for didn’t. We need an increase in minimum wage to help employees who work for greedy employers that will never give us a raise on their own. Also I imagine college was much cheaper for back then for you than it is today for young people. If you can’t find a job when you get out of school that pays you a fair wage you’ll never be able to pay off your student loans after you graduate, and some degrees that people went to school for are irrevelant by the time they graduate from college due to our rapid technological advances. What are those people supposed to do now Mr. Brown? Should they take out more student loans they may not be able to pay off again to go back to school again? What do you and all the other people who propose that minimum wage not be increased say to that?

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