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Low Wages and Real Lives

Jul 18, 2014 | By Simone Campbell, SSS

A couple of months ago I met Robin, a young woman in her mid-twenties, who works for minimum wage in a profitable clothing store chain. We were at the White House for President Obama’s signing of the executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers. She was excited that a good friend of hers would receive a raise because of this order. Her hope was that eventually she too would be able to get a raise.

After we had spoken for a time while we waited for the president, she talked a bit about how difficult it was to live on minimum wage – about $15,000 a year before taxes. She confided in me that “you wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I have to live in a homeless shelter because I can’t afford rent in this area.” I was stunned. I knew it was difficult to live on minimum wage, but had not known the enormous challenge just to get by. Robin is well-spoken and personable, with an electric smile, and yet she struggles every day just to get by. Raising the minimum wage would allow Robin to get her own place.

A few weeks later I met Adriana, who also works for minimum wage. She has a young child. She, too, is struggling. She has to pay $500 per month for child care and $240 for transportation. She is left with little more than $600 per month for rent, food, clothing, medical care, etc. Adriana says that it is almost impossible. The way she gets by is that she rents a room for herself and her young child in a house in the area. She is with other people she does not know who also rent rooms, but is so grateful to have a roof over her head. Raising the minimum wage would allow her to find a better environment for herself and her child.

A while ago, I met Billy and his wife, who both work for minimum wage. They decided that they would pool their salaries to get an apartment for themselves and their two boys, ages 14 and 6. In order to get food, they use food stamps (SNAP: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) during the day and go to St. Benedict the Moor free dining room every evening. Billy said he wished he didn’t have to do that, but he knew that he could not pay for food, especially for his growing sons. His 14-year-old had just been through a growth spurt and needed constant food. Billy told me that as a parent he could get by with eating once or twice a day, but growing children need to eat regularly. Raising the minimum wage would allow Billy and his wife to feed their hungry children without worry.

All three of these stories are about the truth of life on minimum wage. The “Live the Wage Challenge” allows me to live a little bit of the anguish faced by each of these fine people. While we won’t live in a homeless shelter or in a room surrounded by strangers, we will know the stress of trying to feed our families, pay utilities, allocate some for rent, and get to work on approximately $300 for the week. But why should we do this?

I learned from Ann who works at Chautauqua in New York that one good reason to do this is to learn just how much hard work and ingenuity goes into living on minimum wage salaries. Ann told me that she and her husband both lost their positions in the recession, and even though they both have masters degrees they have had a hard time finding work in their fields. They have taken available jobs where her husband is working 50 hours a week and she is working 40 hours a week in a bookstore. They have four children who are now in their teens. While they make slightly above minimum wage, they are applying for SNAP benefits to feed the family.

She commented on how hard it is to have low incomes. She said that it takes much more work than when she and her husband made professional salaries. They are growing some of their food to supplement their earnings and do any odd jobs that they can. They never have the luxury of going out to eat or buying prepared foods. She is not opposed to work, but rather expressed surprise about just how much time and hard work it takes to survive living in poverty. She had no idea just how tough it was when they had professional salaries.

It is for Ann and her family that it is worth trying the Live the Wage Challenge. I need to have my eyes opened to the challenge of living with low wages. When my eyes are opened then I can share my experience with those who might not know just what a struggle it is to care for your family on impossibly low salaries. With open eyes, then maybe we can all work to change the culture of our society where it is currently acceptable to pay subsistence wages.

We the People need to stand up and say “Raise the minimum wage!” It is good for our people and our economy. It is good for our nation as a whole. Raise the wage for Robin, Adriana, Billy and his wife, and Ann and her family.

We the People are better than our current reality. 

Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, and author of A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community.