Minimum Wage Is Not a Livable Wage

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Minimum Wage Is Not a Livable Wage

"We all deserve a livable wage. It’s not just an economic issue - it’s a health issue, a family stability issue, and a human rights issue." (Photo: Steve Rhodes/flickr/cc)

Donald Trump is no stranger to inflammatory remarks, but one statement really struck home for me. During the presidential debate on November 10, Donald Trump claimed that current wages are “too high.” He repeated that claim the following day during the New England Council "Politics and Eggs" breakfast in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Donald Trump has never struggled for money—he even talked recently about getting a “small loan” from his father to the tune of $1 million.  Mr. Trump, take it from someone who has lived most of her life below the poverty line: minimum wage is a starvation wage for many low-income individuals and families. 

The average minimum wage in this country is $7.25. Let’s do a quick thought experiment. If we assume that rent is $1,000-$1,200 a month (if we’re lucky), at minimum wage I would need to work approximately 138-166 hours to earn enough to pay rent. Then consider that many full-time workers are limited to working only 40 hours a week, that’s almost an entire month’s earnings right there, going straight to rent. But then, there’s also utilities, food, transportation costs, and other basic expenses. As an individual, I will have to choose between eating meals and paying bills. But if I had a family, how could I force my children to go hungry?  

For many parents, the choice is easy: go without so your children will not be deprived. This comes at great sacrifice to working parents, who neglect their own needs at great costs to their health. Minimum wage earners who do not seek treatment for serious illnesses are far more likely to die of preventable conditions. Minimum wage is literally killing parents before their time. 

There’s also an added burden for many adults: student loans. People may owe as much as  $100,000 after they get an undergraduate degree— possibly more if they took out high-risk predatory private loans. I’m lucky— as a student on full financial aid, I had taken out federal Perkins loans, which come with a grace period and lower interest rates. That said, it will still take almost ten years for me to pay back my loans. Some people are paying back college debt into their fifties. And the next generation of college students will not be as lucky: Congress has allowed Perkins to expire, so new low-income students will have more debt and fewer means to pay it off. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has called for debt free college education so that future students won’t have to suffer this burden. 

Being poor is incredibly humiliating and stressful on a daily basis. Most poor people are incredibly hard-working; they juggle multiple jobs to compensate for lower wages, and some of them are caregivers for family members on top of that. Yet, some of the hardest working people in this country do not earn enough to regularly put food on the table. They can hardly afford to buy new clothes, much less buy property. As the largest group of consumers, they cannot even afford to consume—which, for a consumer economy, seems a real waste. Current minimum wage standards hurt our economy by depriving large numbers of people of purchasing power.

Trump has never had to earn his keep; he didn’t have to start working at age fourteen to help his family make rent, and he has certainly never struggled to pay his bills. I don’t expect him to understand what it’s actually like to try to live on minimum wage in this country. But millions of other Americans who have lived through poverty understand all too well. Most of us, as Barbara Ehrenreich poignantly wrote in a recent op-ed, are too busy dealing with being poor to write about being in poverty.

It falls on those of us who make it out of those circumstances, who finally earn enough to be able to take a break from the daily grind to tell our story, to speak for those who are still stuck in the purgatory that is life below the poverty line. I am so grateful to be working for a progressive agenda that seeks to lift up and give voice to these people.

We all deserve a livable wage. It’s not just an economic issue - it’s a health issue, a family stability issue, and a human rights issue. States around the country are starting to increase their minimum wage to account for higher costs of living. It’s time for the federal government to do the right thing and increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. That way, fewer parents will lose custody of their kids because of empty refrigerators at home. Fewer kids will have to start working at young ages to support their families, rather than getting to focus on schoolwork. And fewer workers will have to choose between a stack of bills and a decent meal.

Olivia Alperstein

Olivia Alperstein is a communication and policy associate at Progressive Congress.org

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