Essay: What if you had to live on $7.25 an hour?

Essay: What if you had to live on $7.25 an hour?

Originally published by Firebrand Progressives


An average screen-printed T-shirt costs around $15. Someone earning the current federal minimum wage would have to work more than two hours to buy one. And while prices for nearly everything consumers purchase continue to go up, minimum wage rarely increases.

From September 1997 to July 2007, the federal minimum wage did not increase once. In 1997, the federal minimum wage was $5.15 an hour. Ten years later, it was raised to $5.85—an increase of less than 15 percent over the decade. In the same period, the price of a dozen eggs rose 57 percent and the price of a gallon of gas rose by 145 percent.

Many vehemently oppose increasing the minimum wage, yet millions of Americans are trying to live on the income from a minimum wage job. However, the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is not enough to survive. If a worker makes minimum wage and works a full 40 hours a week, they will make just over $1,000 a month before withholdings. Can you imagine living on only a grand per month?

The ability to earn $1,000 in a month is also predicated on being able to work a full 40-hour workweek. In reality, most hourly wage earners do not work that much, and contrary to popular rhetoric, it isn’t always because they don’t want to work. Most business that pay an hourly wage hire dozens of part-time workers and rarely schedule any of them for 40 hours per week. Some are quick to blame this on the Affordable Care Act, but these employment tactics were in place long before the ACA was drafted.

So who are these minimum wage earners? According to recent numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 75.9 million American workers age 16 and over were paid hourly in 2013. This accounts for nearly 60 percent of all American workers. Of those hourly workers, 1.5 million earned the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. About 1.8 million earned wages below the federal minimum wage (there are exemptions to the minimum wage provisions of Fair Labor Standards Act, so this does not necessarily indicate violations of the law).

Could you do it?
Imagine you make $7.25 an hour. You put in hours of monotonousness work every day—maybe you’re doing the stereotypical flipping of burgers, or maybe something more labor intensive, like landscaping. Either way, for every hour you spend doing your task, you are paid $7.25. However, after tax and Social Security withholdings, you take home about $6 for every hour worked. Assuming you’re actually scheduled to work a full 40-hour workweek every week, you’ll take home about $960 a month after withholdings.

Let’s say you manage to find an apartment you can afford. The neighborhood leaves a lot to be desired and you have some pretty significant problems with insects getting into your belongings, but at least it’s located within walking distance of a bus stop. You’ll need easy access to the bus since the costs associated with owning and insuring a car are far too high for you to afford right now. Still, a monthly pass for public transportation can easily cost $80 or more in a larger city, so it’s still going to cost you a good chunk of one paycheck just to get around town. You may also want to bring a book because public transportation typically isn’t very convenient and can often take hours just to get to your job.

The rent for your small apartment is only $400 a month, cheap by most standards. However, put into context, that’s more than 40 percent of your monthly take home pay. Another way of looking at it is that you’ll have to work for 67 hours in order to earn that $400. You also have to hope you do not get sick or injured because missing even one or two shifts could prevent you from being able to pay rent. And if you require serious medical treatment, you simply may not be able to pay for a trip to the hospital.

After paying rent, you’ll still need to feed yourself. You’ll no doubt learn to shop for bargains at the supermarket, but even if you stick largely to store brands and use coupons, you’ll easily spend $80 a month. That’s over 13 hours of work at your job. Occasionally, you’ll want a treat. Say you stop after work to get a combo meal at your favorite fast food establishment. At $9, you’ll have to work an hour and a half to enjoy that hamburger and fries. For a bigger treat, you may want to go to a full-service restaurant. Dinner, a soda, and a tip will easily cost $15, or almost three hours of work.

What will you do for fun and entertainment? You soon discover that sitting around your small apartment gets old fast, and with cable television costing at least $50 a month, you’re stuck with the free channels you receive. If you want to catch a new release movie, you’re going to shell out about $10, which is about 1.5 hours of work. Buy a movie ticket, small popcorn, and a small drink and you’ve easily spent $18—or 3 hours of work. Three hours of work to enjoy a 90-minute movie.

Okay, so living alone on minimum wage is difficult. But what if you have a family to support? You’ll need a bigger and more expensive apartment. Your food costs will be much higher, too. But what about life beyond the day-to-day costs? Recent statistics show the average cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 is over $200,000. Even if both parents are working minimum wage jobs, that’s only about $1,900 a month for the entire household. And with both parents working, childcare will likely be necessary. For most working families, a daycare or traditional babysitter is the second largest expense after housing—with an average monthly cost of at least $300 in the least expensive markets and as much as $650 in large cities.

While legitimate cases of people gaming the welfare and unemployment systems do exist, there are millions of Americans who work hard every day, earning only minimum wage. Living on minimum wage is something most of us could not do, yet it is reality for millions of Americans.