A boost, but hardly a living wage
When I was in high school, I worked at a convenience store where I made sandwiches, stocked the cooler, manned the cash register, swept the floors, cleaned bathrooms and made coffee.
The pay was pretty lousy — minimum wage, which in 1994 was $4.25 an hour.
But I didn’t really mind, as the convenience store offered certain perks.
My best friend worked there, and my boss was willing to schedule around my busy slate of extracurricular activities, which meant that my job never conflicted with soccer games or jazz band rehearsal. I earned enough money to pay for movies, concerts and the occasional dinner out with friends, as well as textbooks when I went off to college. My needs were modest — I was, after all, a teenager — and I was able to meet them with part-time, minimum-wage work.
I can’t imagine living on minimum wage as an adult, though.
My lifestyle is still fairly modest, but it does entail paying for rent, heat and food. I don’t have children, but plenty of minimum-wage workers do. How do they get by? Well, many of them probably supplement their lousy pay with food stamps, Medicaid and other forms of public assistance.
New York’s minimum wage will rise to $8 an hour next year, up from $7.25, which is a step in the right direction.
But you don’t have to be a mathematical wizard to realize that this just isn’t enough money to live on. A worker making $8 an hour and working full-time for 52 weeks a year will earn an annual income of about $16,640.
For teenagers in need of spending money, that might be perfectly adequate.
But most minimum-wage workers are grown-ups: 49 percent are adult women, while 28 percent are adult men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. New York is one of the most expensive states in the country, where it’s not uncommon to hear downstate residents complain that a six-figure income just doesn’t go as far as it used to. And yet somehow, people earning minimum wage are expected to cover their expenses on less than $20,000 a year.
If we want people to be self-sufficient, capable of supporting themselves and their families, we need to support efforts to raise the minimum wage to something more akin to a living wage — a wage that is designed to meet the basic needs of workers.
On Monday, state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said he wanted the timeline for raising the state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour moved up a year. Right now, minimum wage is set to increase to $8.75 an hour at the end of 2014 and $9 an hour at the end of 2015.
“New York’s hardworking men and women are struggling and they cannot afford to wait two more years for a decent raise,” Silver said. “Poverty is not a fair reward for those who work a full-time job.”
It’s nice to know that Silver realizes raising the minimum wage to $8 an hour is not exactly going to lift the state’s low-wage workers out of poverty. But neither will $9 an hour. A March study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that if minimum wage had kept up with inflation, it would be about $10.52 an hour.
You often hear that low-wage workers earn so little because their jobs don’t require a lot of skill.
There’s some truth to that, but it obscures the fact that good work is increasingly hard to find.
A report from the National Employment Law Project found that while a majority of the jobs lost during the recession were in the middle range of wages, the majority of jobs added in the recovery are in low-wage occupations, such as retail and food preparation.
Our political leaders can talk all they want about how the path to prosperity is a college education, preferably in science, technology, engineering and math, but such talk overlooks the reality of what’s happening in the job market. If every low-wage worker in America magically woke up tomorrow morning with a college education, there wouldn’t be enough good-paying jobs to go around.
When it comes down to it, I believe people who work hard should be paid enough to live on.
And most minimum-wage workers work hard, often for companies that are quite profitable.
I certainly worked hard at the convenience store.
Physically, my job there was more demanding than what I do now, and I found dealing with customers stressful and draining. I wouldn’t necessarily say I worked harder at the convenience store than I do now. But you know what? On some days I did.
Sara Foss, a Gazette columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.