Life on minimum wage.

Reporter Heidi Evans of The New York Daily News was asked by her newspaper to try living for a week on minimum wage and then write about it. It seems New York legislators are considering raising the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.10 and the newspaper thought it might be worthwhile to see what life is like at the current rate.

New York Daily News – Home – My week living on the minimum wage

First, she cried.

“I don’t want to be a hobo,” my 9-year-old daughter told me.

That was her reaction when she learned that the Daily News wanted us to experience and write about life on minimum wage – $5.15 an hour, or $206 before taxes for a 40-hour workweek in New York City.

Without knowing much, she intuitively was on to something that 700,000 working-poor New Yorkers know: It is impossible to live on $206 a week, or $892 a month—if you like living indoors, or want to put in a full day’s work but can’t afford to pay a baby-sitter from 3 to 6 p.m. during the school week. Or if you have grown weary of begging and borrowing from every friend, relative and credit card each week just to survive.

The basic facts are enough to make a grown person cry.

I just checked and the minimum wage here in Michigan is also only $5.15 an hour. I haven’t worked for minimum wage in a long time and when I did I was a teenager living at home so it wasn’t a big deal as it got me gas and movie money to hang out with my friends with. I can’t imagine trying to live on a mere $5.15 an hour let alone take care of my family on it. Even with two parents working minimum wage I can’t imagine how people do it. Yet some folks manage to pull it off just the same.

I admit that I’m a little spoiled in that I have a family of three that manages to live on my income alone. There are days I wonder how I’m going to make ends meet, but the truth is if I got rid of some of my toys I’d have no problems making ends meet and I always seem to find a way in the end. I have no solution to the poverty issue and I wish I were smart enough to figure it out as I’m fortunate to have had the money to spoil myself with.

14 thoughts on “Life on minimum wage.

  1. Ooo, the minimum wage issue. My feelings on it are that minimum wage is not MEANT to support a family, and certainly not on only one minimum wage income.

    Raising the minimum wage would simply drive jobs out of the country, or to illegals willing to do it, because to be quite honest, there are some jobs that just aren’t worth any more than $5ish an hour.

    So, “How can a family survive?”. They’re not supposed to. Don’t have kids, and hopefully keep a roomate, to support the lifestyle minimum wage was intended to support.

    Get a skill worth more than what any sullen teenager can do, or get some birth control.


  2. Get a skill worth more than what any sullen teenager can do

    The problem is that we’re getting better and better at making machines, and creating production processes that allow MANY jobs to be done by “sullen teenagers.”  Economists are always pointing out how we’ve moved away from a manufacturing base to a “service based” economy.  Of course “service” can mean anything from sweeping floors at the local McDs to working as a network administrator for a fortune 500 Co.  But most service jobs that pay a fairly decent wage require more than a highschool education—and we don’t fund education (in general) the way we used to. 

    On top of all of that, even jobs that DO have a fairly developed skillset are being exported these days.

    I can understand the libertarian objections to minimum wage, but when you look at the way that capitalism functions, the only way for workers to get a “living” wage is for the labor pool to be dramatically reduced (relative increase in worker value in Medieval England after Plague), or for individual workers to acquire skillsets that are invaluable.  If there’s enough competition in the domestic labor market, companies can always find someone to do the work for dirt cheap.  Early industrial America and England are pretty good examples of the kind of things that can happen when you adopt laissez faire economic policy.

    These days, most workers are pretty replaceable.  If there was no minimum wage law, companies would be happy to pay people 50 cents an hour.  And they’d be able to find people to do the work, too.  Would there be enlightened companies that would not try to cut their labor expenses to the bone?  Sure.  There are companies like that today.  But the vast majority of companies, if they’re feeling the pinch, look to “streamline.”  And that means squeezing more work out of fewer employees—because that IS productivity.

    All of this creates an increasing pressure on businesses to extract more and more labor for less and less pay.  And if they’re not willing to adopt those methods, their competitors will.  That tends to make even companies with moral objections take a second look at their approach.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that your hostility toward the minimum wage is because you ARE an employer (but I could be way off base!).  I can understand that you might occassionally look at an employee and think (What the HELL am I paying this person for?)  But laissez faire economic policy isn’t the answer.  And I guarantee that it would create the kind of economic pressures that would again force laborers to unionize.  (How do you feel about unions?)

    The truth is that my understanding of economics is—very—limited, and I’m no authority on this.  But I believe industrialization has led us to a point where we have more than enough people, and not enough “necessary” jobs for them to do.

    A Malthusian might say “Excellent.  Starvation is there to restore the natural balance.” I can only think YIKES! 

    On top of all that, if everyone runs out and gets themselves some sort of advanced skill set, then that skillset is no longer invaluable—it’s common, and the labor pool is once again huge. . .

    Hell, I WANT the peasant who’s cleaning my mansion to have a living wage.  Otherwise they might kill me and eat me.

    (If I actually knew what I was talking about, I might be dangerous.)

  3. I have a sneaking suspicion that your hostility toward the minimum wage is because you ARE an employer (but I could be way off base!)

    Sort of, but not really. I’ve never employed anyone for minimum wage. The least I’ve ever paid a full time employee was around $7.50 and hour, 4 years ago.

    My business doesn’t have much requirement for a minimum wage type of position. Skilled workers only. I can wash my own coffee mug and sweep the floor myself.

    But jobs like McDonalds, the greeter at WalMart, etc., etc. I just don’t see them being worth more than that. If businesses are FORCED to pay more than a position is worth, they may just reconsider even having that position. I would.

    My housekeeper averages around $20/hour. Not bad. Although she’s not paid “hourly”, but by visit. Considering her other houses, she’s raking in a tidy sum.

    Adults SHOULD have a living wage. I agree. But minimum wage is not supposed to be a living wage for a family with kids. It’s a living wage for a single person who maybe has a roomate.

    And if one is not happy with that lot in life (and they shouldn’t be for long), I suggest they develop a skill that is worth paying more money for.

    People can not expect to live the “American Dream”…house, kids, daycare, and two cars…when they’ve never learned to do anything more than that a 16 y/o kid can do. Everyone os not entitled to a comfortable living by just barely being a warm body for 8 hours a day. You have to provide the employer with a skill worth paying for.

    I maintain that minimum wage was never intended to support a family, and only barely intended to support ONE adult (living very frugally)…which is why it’s called MINIMUM.

  4. I agree that minimum wage shouldn’t be a comfortable wage.  But it should at least meet basic food, housing, and transportation needs.
    That’s not comfortable by any stretch of the imagination.  How many people are “happy” eating, sleeping and working, and having no expendable cash to go on vacation, see a movie, etc?  Having a weekend off, with no money to actually go and do anything tends to “motivate” people to acquire more valuable job skills.  I don’t think it’s necessary to keep them teetering on the brink of homelessness.

    As for families supporting kids on minimum wage, I’m conflicted.  1) Don’t breed if you can’t afford it.  2) Kids don’t choose their parents.

    The last difficulty that I have with minimum wage is that it is often determined in the most random way.  It’s 7 something dollars an hour in WA, which makes perfect sense if you’re in Pullman, because the rents here are comparable to what you’d pay in Sacto CA. (ie: really high).  On the other hand, if you drive twenty minutes away, to Colfax, it’s no longer officially a University Town, and the rents drop substantially.

    So cost of living can fluctuate pretty wildly within the range of a few miles, but the minimum wage tends to be adopted on statewide levels.

    I don’t have any solutions for any of these problems.  I just remember what it was like to be a dishwasher, to work at Toys R’ Us, to stack palettes in a warehouse, and the sort of hopelessness that came with those jobs.  I really thought that I was never going to get out of there.  I remember living with two roomates, while working at Carl’s Jr., and losing about fifteen pounds over the summer while the cupboards were fully stocked with food that wasn’t mine.

    Of course I’m a teacher—so I’m going to spend my entire life sucking the govt. tit.  Hardly a place from which I can tell others how their tax dollars should be spent.

  5. I think you’ve hit on a good point. It doesn’t make sense to set a minimum STATE wide, much less nationwide. MW (minimum wage, my fingers are cramping up) is an entirely different lifestyle depending on where you live. We have the numbers for comparitive local costs of living, and the MW should reflect that, IMO.

    I’d probably starve making MW in the city I live in. But if I lived over in the piss-pot town where our marina is, less than an hour away, I’d be in comparitively pretty high cotton.

    But it should at least meet basic food, housing, and transportation needs.

  6. “entitlement-minded whiners.” I mean no offense, but I am picking up on a little bit of that in these posts. Raising minimum wage creates problems, and job-losses, but so does the cost of living which is getting a bit ridiculous. I think you are paying for the people’s continual bad choices alright, but alot of them are coming from those running this circus. Our utility companies are flat out ripping people off, as are the medical and insurance industries.
    Neither of you are considering the people this country has let down. I live in an area rampant with such cases. The government requires schooling, but does not ensure that schooling is sufficient. I cannot count on both hands and feet the number of people I have had to fill out checks for because they cannot write out more than their names, and it wasn’t because they did not go to school, it was because the school passed them along anyway; whether to save their stats or rid themselves of a headache one can only guess. You can put this responsibility with the parents, but some of those children became the parents, and regardless, the blame doesn’t matter unless it fixes the problem - so far it hasn’t.
    You make it sound as if you truly believe that everyone out there is given - or able to create - the same opportunities, but that is simply not reality. Have either of you sat down, for free, to teach these people something that will take them further along in life? Not many people do, and yet they complain they are entitled to better spent taxes. Said quite frankly, unless you take an active role in helping the lower-rung people, then I don’t think you should really complain about them bringing the rest of us down.
    As for the ” don’t breed if you cannot afford it ” comment, I wonder if either of you have children. I do, and it looks as if I will have to take a job well under my qualifications and pay history just to have something coming in. A few years ago, I had no problem supporting my children, but circumstances change, especially in an economy like this. If you are saying that a person making minimum wage should probably wait to have children until they are making better money, then so be your opinion. But the way you are putting it is rather insensitive to people who once were doing just fine and to those who are the greatest of parents but do not have the skills, the education, the intelligence, and/or the opportunity to climb that latter. There are people out there like that, you know.

  7. This is one of those issues I always have a hard time with mainly because I can see all the sides. Yes, there are people who would settle for minimum wage jobs as an entitlement and not work to move up if it provided enough to live on, but there are also a lot of people out there whom I believe want to move up the ladder that don’t have the opportunity and for whom minimum wage would remove them from the welfare qualification without providing enough to subsist on for any length of time that might allow them to work their way up the ladder or gain the skills they need. I know this because I’ve met them.

    Honestly, that’s one of the biggest issues I can think of is that the inability to live day to day on minimum wage is the main reason so many people don’t bother to try and just sit on welfare using the breeding method to give themselves “raises” as it were. As the news article itself points out even if these people were inclined to put their kids in daycare and go out and get a job the cost of daycare alone would eat up so much of their minimum wage that they’d not be able to feed themselves let alone pay for necessary utilities.

    Honestly, if it’s more beneficial to them to pump out kids and sit on welfare than to go out and get that entry level job then is it any surprise that they don’t? There’s no easy way for most people who are so inclined to move from the welfare situation to working full-time successfully. Even if we boot them off of welfare more often than not the end up back on it before too long.

    So I guess it comes down to do we want to spend the money on welfare where they don’t contribute back to society in any significant way or do we want to spend the money on a minimum wage that might encourage more people to get off of welfare and stand on their own two feet without risking their very survival in doing so?

  8. Everything is expensive in New York, and $5.15 is a REDICULOUSLY low minimum wage in such a hauty-tauty state (with the exception of maybe some upstate boonie towns).  Hell, I live in Connecticut, and it was a year before my boss gave me a raise (and that, they admitted, was based on their own irresponsibility).  I can’t even imagine living on the wage that I make now - and we only have a 6% sales tax.  In fact, I have a 16 year old friend who CAN’T.  And she lives with her 30 year old boyfriend in an apartment that they can barely afford, even when he has a job.

    Even if New York’s tax is 1% higher, they shouldn’t have a wage $2.00 lower than what’s considered normal in the state next to it.  Not only that, but prices are higher EVERYWHERE because of our crappy economy and gas prices are still skyrocketing compared to what they were 2 years ago.

    As for the kids: THIS IS WHY ABORTION SHOULD BE FULLY LEGAL.  I really hate to say it (and I don’t think abortion should be the way out of everything), but the choice should be up to the women, and many times these days it isn’t.  Take out the “chance” factor, and let ‘em do it.  And it’s not like it’s an easy way out either way - they’re really expensive, they practically destroy the reproductive system, and they’re morally reprehensible.  So if they want to, with all of those negative factors, LET THEM DO IT.  We’re ALREADY starting to get overpopulated - and in eastern countries where the problem is rampant (like Japan - a FIFTH world country at it’s maximum state of societal development), abortion is ENCOURAGED.  In cities, children are not a commodity - they’re a hindrance.  I’m definitely not saying that we should be like that; I’m saying we shouldn’t wait until we have to be.  No child should be raised in a world where he isn’t wanted by anyone.

    I agree with Brandi.  If people are too poor to have children, they shouldn’t.  Ever.  They shouldn’t even be taking CHANCES with getting pregnant.  But 5 bucks an hour is still too low to live on - it’s just not reasonable.

    I just KNOW I’m gonna get the riot act for this one.

  9. Greetings from the State of Florida:

    I have noted the alarming trend of companies PUSHING wages down to $5.15 an hour from a higher level.  In a consumer based economy, this is the equivilent of hemlock.  The less money you have, the less you have to spend and the slower the economy progresses.

    In this state, housing is not affordable or rentable at $5.15 an hour.  Public housing helps when it can be found. One city, Tampa, is actually eliminating ALL public housing units and replacing them with upper scale units.  In that city 96% of the poor housing residents fled the city and have turned up in homeless shelters, living with other people, or in very used and decaying trailers.  Some people are even living in shacks made from discarded lumber and plastic. I know of one person who lives in a small, wooden livestock barn because there was no other way to afford a house.

    The remaining 4% managed to get Section 8 HUD vouchers to get their homes.  One could day there was economic cleansing going on in that city.

    Unlike NYC, there is no organized mass transit.  If you cannot afford to run and support an automobile, you have to either walk or use a bicycle in even the larger Florida towns and cities.  The nearest bus stop from the location that I am at is 6 miles away in the next Florida county (Orange, seat of Disney World and Orlando).

    The federal minimum wage is an insult to the 25% of the Florida work force that earns it.  About 40% of the state workforce lives with less than $9.00 an hour.  The “Living Wage” that was calculated for basic survival for singles is around $8.50 an hour.

    I hope the New York State Legislature does pass its increase in minimum wage.  Perhaps the feds will follow.


  10. Brandi -

    Thank you for telling me that about the physical effects of abortion.  I was a complete idiot and didn’t check to see if the rumor was true, and it wasn’t.  A truly stupid mistake.  I will brutalize myself as punishment after I finish this letter.

    But then again, the cost of an abortion is comparitively high to a person who’s getting minimum wage, in my opinion (ESPECIALLY when you only make just over $200 before taxes in a full workweek).

    And as for the cost of minimum wage shortening the “job pool” - I don’t think it would make too much of a difference, considering that current wages are too low for current employees to live on (I would rather have fewer people with jobs who are somewhat FED than a bunch of 40-hour workers starving their asses off).  You have to understand that not all jobs for sustainance, but a majority are (Hell, that’s the only reason we HAVE jobs).  Minimum wage jobs aren’t meant as permanent vocations, but you NEED more than $5.15 an hour either way; if not for life, then just for the weeks that you’d be working there to move up the ladder to a better occupation.  Perhaps less than $7.10 would be required to sustain oneself (and, most likely, a family with it), but $5.15 is still far too low.

  11. I think the minimum wage should be $20 an hour.  That way everyone could have a decent house and clothing and food.  Also there should be a minimum car because people wont be able to get to these jobs unless they have dependable transportation.  My car is six years old and Im afraid to take it on vacation.  Every American who works hard enough to earn $20 an hour deserves a (paid) vacation and a decent SUV to drive to Disneyland.  Did you know it costs $50 to get into Disneyland?  There should be a maximum entry fee.  I say no one should be able to charge more than $25 admission.  And one more thing, there should be a maximum wage.  No one needs more than $50,000 a year.  All wages earned over 50,000 should be taxed at 100% and given to people who arent as lucky.  Yes 20 bucks per hour and no more than 50K.  Oh yes, free healthcare.  Who pays for it?  No one.  Its free.  The government pays for it.

    OK, I got a little carried away, but if $7 is a good minimum wage, $20 would be even better.

  12. This is why people in Europe say that the United States is socially fucked up. For all the talk about how in America, anyone can live the American dream, there is very little social/economic mobility in this country. This is something that statistics are available for, and it can be tracked. Addressing this problem is a more viable solution than a band-aid (as an engineer, Minimum Wage certainly looks like a band-aid solution to me). How can this problem be addressed? Easy. Education. Make higher education free. Find out what’s keeping individual minimum wage earners from moving forward, and address THOSE issues. If you build it, they will come. Etc. Christ. Engineers should run this country.

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