National Consumers League

Amidst a flurry of economic theories about the minimum wage, personal struggles tell the story

By Michell K. McIntyre, Outreach Director, Labor and Worker Rights

These days, issues of economic security are finally getting their due. Cities and states – and in some cases counties – have decided to strike it out on their own and take matters into their own hands. Thirteen states and a few cities and counties have increased their minimum wages in the past year. Still, the federal government lags behind.

A few weeks ago, the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee held its first hearing on the Senate Fair Minimum Wage Act (S.460 & H.R. 1010) that would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, increase the tipped minimum wage from a paltry $2.13 an hour to 70% of the ‘regular’ minimum wage ($7.07), and index both to the rate of inflation – thus stopping this vital wage from being used as a political football.

The hearing witness list included the usual heavyweights: the U.S. Department of Labor‘s (DOL) Secretary Tom Perez and the Director of the Congressional Budget Office Douglas Elmendorf as well as Dr. Heather Boushey, the Executive Director and Chief Economist of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of the NETWORK, but most importantly, Alicia McCrary – a mother of four trying to make ends meet as a fast food worker on a minimum wage salary.

Alicia McCrary’s voice brought the discussion out of the battling economic studies, partisan posturing, and election year sound bites and back to reality. McCrary simply told her truth and the truth of many families. She spoke of how she moved her four boys out of Chicago after leaving an abusive relationship and shared with the Committee the routine of deciding each month which of her four sons would be the lucky one to get a haircut because she can’t afford for them all to have haircuts in the same month.

Alicia is a good example of what life is like for millions of American families struggling on the minimum wage. Besides demands from work, these working parents face many hurdles at home from finding affordable housing and childcare to feeding their growing children and providing them with health care. With the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour, a single mother that works full time and has one child, lives in poverty at $15,080 (before taxes) a year. This qualifies them for food stamps because without it, they would have little left after paying rent, utilities, transportation, and health care.

The New York Times and the Economic Policy Institute have both released minimum wage calculators/budgets that demonstrate just how far a minimum wage paycheck goes. They highlight the many costs faced by families and just how unlivable the current minimum wage is. Not surprisingly, the numbers show the writing on the wall that families across the country already know. With the recent cuts to the federal food stamp program, low-wage workers are seeing their budgets get stretched even farther. In many metropolitan areas affordable housing is a myth – in a recently published report Out of Reach

from the National Low Income Housing Coalition – in no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent. In Washington D.C., where a District minimum wage earner makes $8.50 an hour – more than the federal minimum wage, it would take that same worker 137 hours per week to afford rent. How many hours would a minimum wage earner need to work in your state to afford rent?

If raised to $10.10 an hour, as those in both houses of Congress and worker advocates are calling for, then 30.3 million workers would get a raise. American families need a break – we need to raise the minimum wage!