How I failed to live on the minimum wage

Written By contributors Posted: 08/04/2014, 10:50am

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat, represents Illinois’ 9th Congressional District and talks about trying to live on $7.25 an hour:

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:

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 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 lettuce 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 D.C. 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!


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