Take a look at your bills: What do you pay for food, housing, clothing, health care, utilities and transportation? How much would it take for your family to just get by? Could you make it on $15,000 a year? $21,000? What would your family have to do without to make ends meet?
What exactly does it take to make it in America?
The working poor are not fundamentally different, nor do they practice some kind of magical math that allows them to support their families on wages that would sink your own.
This year, President Obama called for a raise in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour. The controversy that followed was as predictable as it was irrelevant to those with the most at stake: the low-wage working poor.
As usual, the voices of those most affected have been glaringly absent. Also missing is any discussion of the bread-and-butter question: What is it actually like to live on $7.25 or $9 an hour? Do either of these numbers constitute what working families need and deserve?
Although the terms “minimum wage” and “living wage” are sometimes used interchangeably, their meanings are quite different. A minimum wage is the lowest a business can legally pay. A living wage is what its workers need to meet their families’ basic needs — to stave off the choice between a gallon of gas and a gallon of milk.
A full-time worker at the federal minimum wage makes $14,500 a year, placing him or her below the federal poverty line if supporting a family of two or more. A $9-an-hour minimum wage would push that annual income up to $21,000. But if you look at that “raise” in inflation-adjusted dollars, it leaves today’s minimum-wage worker making significantly less than he did in 1968.
Low-wage workers, despite the “fuzzy math” of the minimum-wage debate, cannot spin paychecks of straw into middle-class gold. The working poor do what they must, whether living in substandard housing or making do with low-cost, low-nutrition food. But their bottom-line needs are no different than anyone else’s.
President Obama’s savviest move may have been his call for communities to act on their own, passing living-wage ordinances at local and state levels. In Washington State, for example, legislators have introduced a measure to raise the state’s minimum wage from $9.32 an hour to $12 an hour by 2017.
This livable-wage issue is a priority for the Marguerite Casey Foundation. So when we found out that the general manager of the hotel we had booked months in advance for a staff retreat helped lead the campaign against a minimum-wage increase, we were taken aback. It was too late to cancel our reservation, so we opted to do what we had each day since the foundation’s inception: We would wear our values on our sleeves — literally.
The morning of the retreat, 25 staff members arrived at the hotel, all wearing T-shirts saying, WE SUPPORT A LIVING WAGE. The hotel’s general manager soon sought us out.
But he had not approached us to debate a living wage. His concern was narrower. “Are there more of you?” He said.
In the short term, it was easy to reassure him that, no, there were no bus loads of protesters heading for the hotel. But the truer answer is, yes, there are more of us — families across America who believe in the promise of the American Dream.
How could we explain that all we wanted was for those who slept in beds and ate food made by minimum-wage workers to question policies and priorities that leave those workers struggling to feed and house their own families? And for businesses like his to recognize that it takes a work force to grow a profit line. No matter how good the product, a business is only as good as the people it employs. Don’t they deserve more than minimum wage?
A recent USA Today/Pew Research Center poll found that nearly two-thirds of Republicans (64 percent) and more than nine out of 10 Democrats believe government should take action to reduce poverty.
If 25 of us wearing T-shirts stating our support for a living wage rattled the administration of a hotel, what might the 46 million people living in poverty in this country achieve working together? Perhaps they could move the country in the direction where most Americans stand.
Luz Vega-Marquis is president and CEO of the Marguerite Casey Foundation.