An Unlivable Minimum

The Democratic presidential candidates were asked in the CNN/YouTube debate if they were willing to work in the White House for the national minimum wage. Senators Christopher Dodd and Joe Biden said no.

Dodd whined, "I have two young daughters who I'm trying to educate. . . . I don't think I could live on the minimum wage." Biden moaned, "My net worth is $70,000 to $150,000. That's what happens you get elected at 29. I couldn't afford to stay in the Congress for the minimum wage. But if I get a second job, I'd do it."

If Dodd, first elected to the Senate 27 years ago, and Biden, first elected to the Senate 35 years ago, say they cannot work for four years at the minimum wage, that is a huge hint to the minimal meaning in this week's raise from $5.15 to $5.85. It was frozen in place by Congress for a decade. It will go to $6.55 next summer and to $7.25 the summer after that.

But it will remain far short of the real value it had a half-century ago. In 1956, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the minimum wage was 56 percent of the national average wage. The value shriveled to 31 percent last year. But EPI analyst Liana Fox said that even with the increases, she projects the $7.25 will be only 41 percent of the national average wage of $17.86.

The real value of the $7.25 an hour in 2009 will only be $6.42. Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, concurred with somewhat different numbers, projecting a drop in value down to $6.93.

"This increase is very modest," Fox said diplomatically over the telephone. "People are still going to be scraping by for rent, transportation, healthcare, and food. This still would be below basic necessities."

Noah Berger, executive director of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, projects that the Commonwealth's $8 an hour minimum wage in 2008 will rapidly lose its real value as well, falling back to $6.83 by 2013 if there are no changes. Wage fairness advocate Beth Shulman, author of "The Betrayal of Work," said even if the minimum wage were $9 or $10 an hour and indexed for inflation, which many policy experts and the Democratic candidates advocate as a meaningful bare minimum, "No one can live on that in America."

The Economic Policy Institute calculates that a "basic" family budget for one parent and one child in Boston should be nearly $50,000. That assumes a rent of $1,266 a month. Nearly a third of Massachusetts residents live below that line. The Democratic candidates know this at some level. During the same debate, Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor, said he would establish a national minimum wage for teachers at $40,000.

Even the most cursory comparisons betray how outrageous the minimum wage is. One hour of $5.85 minimum-wage work gets you just two gallons of gasoline. The fact that the affluent can mindlessly drop $5.85 for a lunch-time sandwich or a latte and muffin at Starbucks makes us forget that the working poor have to work (based on the lowest prices for these items at my neighborhood Shaw's supermarket) approximately:

Half an hour for a 5-pound bag of white rice.

More than half an hour to afford a pound of butter.

More than half an hour for a loaf of white bread and a 16-ounce jar of peanut butter at $1.88.

More than half an hour for a 1.81-pound family-pack of pork chops.

45 minutes for a gallon of milk.

55 minutes for 1.52 pounds of beef chuck on sale.

A full hour to afford a nearly 5-pound family-pack of chicken drumsticks or thighs.

A full hour to afford a pound of fresh salmon.

A full hour to throw a 1-pound bag of frozen vegetables, a pound of fresh tomatoes, and a bag of carrots into the cart.

Biden is worried about his net worth being as low as $70,000. At $5.85 an hour, it would take nearly 12,000 hours, or nearly six years, to earn that amount. Even six rolls of toilet paper requires a half-hour of work at minimum wages. Shulman is right. No one should live like that in America.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

(c) 2007 The Boston Globe

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