Could You Live on $77 a Week?

Minimum-wage advocates begin their ‘Live the Wage’ challenge five years to the day since the last federal increase.

President Obama greets a Costco bakery employee in Lanham, Maryland on January 29, 2014 before a speech promoting policies outlined in his State of the Union address, including the minimum wage.
National Journal
Jamie Lovegrove
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Jamie Lovegrove
July 24, 2014, 1 a.m.

Mark­ing the fifth an­niversary since the last fed­er­al min­im­um-wage in­crease, pro­gress­ives are set to be­gin a “Live the Wage Chal­lenge” Thursday in a con­tin­ued push for a wage boost.

A co­ali­tion of dozens of pro­gress­ive ad­vocacy and re­search groups, in­clud­ing Amer­ic­ans United for Change and the Na­tion­al Em­ploy­ment Law Pro­ject, are or­gan­iz­ing and spon­sor­ing the weeklong event, ask­ing elec­ted of­fi­cials and mem­bers of the pub­lic to spend a week on a $77 budget — the av­er­age weekly fig­ure for a min­im­um-wage work­er after taxes and hous­ing ex­penses.

The chal­lenge comes amidst con­flict­ing re­cent re­ports re­gard­ing the mac­roe­co­nom­ic im­pact of a po­ten­tial in­crease. Labor De­part­ment num­bers re­leased last week showed that the 13 states that raised their min­im­um wages at the be­gin­ning of this year are see­ing faster job growth than those that did not. That news con­tra­dicted a Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice re­port from earli­er this year, which found that a fed­er­al in­crease to $10.10 could res­ult in 500,000 few­er jobs na­tion­wide.

The min­im­um wage has been one of the most ex­tens­ively re­searched eco­nom­ic top­ics for dec­ades, but no ir­re­fut­able con­sensus has emerged about the ef­fects on un­em­ploy­ment.

Liv­ing on a $77 budget for one week hardly sim­u­lates the every­day struggles of ac­tu­al min­im­um-wage work­ers, whose deep­est con­cerns are fo­cused more on the long-term dif­fi­culties of climb­ing out of re­l­at­ive poverty. Nev­er­the­less, or­gan­izers be­lieve the short-lived ex­er­cise still of­fers a be­ne­fi­cial op­por­tun­ity.

“Ob­vi­ously we can’t rep­lic­ate that ex­act ex­per­i­ence be­cause people need to live their lives, and we’re not ask­ing any­one to de­fault on their ob­lig­a­tions or sac­ri­fice their fu­ture for this ex­er­cise. In that sense, it has its lim­it­a­tions,” said Ar­un Ivatury, the cam­paign strategist for NELP.

“On the oth­er hand, frankly, I think most people who have more com­fort­able in­comes don’t really un­der­stand what $77 a week is like, and the only way to get a sense for it is to ac­tu­ally try it for a week, un­der­stand that it’s an ex­er­cise and it’s im­per­fect, but have that lend some aware­ness about what mil­lions of people around the coun­try go through every day,” he said.

Demo­crat­ic Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Tim Ry­an, and Keith El­lis­on are lead­ing the charge in the House, with ad­di­tion­al help from Ted Strick­land, the former gov­ernor of Ohio and cur­rent pres­id­ent of the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress Ac­tion Fund. And those pub­lic of­fi­cials par­ti­cip­at­ing in­sist that ex­per­i­ences like these are valu­able for re­lat­ing to con­stitu­ents.

“We need to try to ex­per­i­ence, at least for a week, what life is really like. We can’t do that totally, ob­vi­ously — we’d have to change our en­tire life­styles,” Strick­land said on a me­dia con­fer­ence call Monday. “But at least those of us who are en­gaged in this ef­fort will be able to ex­per­i­ence at some level what it must be like for people who live week after week and month after month work­ing really hard and just strug­gling to keep their nose above the wa­ter line.”

The ul­ti­mate long-term goal for the chal­lenge’s or­gan­izers is to pass le­gis­la­tion to raise the fed­er­al min­im­um wage from the cur­rent $7.25 to $10.10, and even­tu­ally to peg it to in­fla­tion so that the is­sue does not need reg­u­lar con­gres­sion­al ac­tion mov­ing for­ward. In March, Sen. Tom Har­kin and Rep. George Miller in­tro­duced a bill to do just that. But des­pite a couple weeks of lofty rhet­or­ic from Demo­crats, it faced the same im­possible odds in a John Boehner-con­trolled House as at­tempts in pre­vi­ous ses­sions.

But or­gan­izers say there is more to this ef­fort than just passing im­me­di­ate le­gis­la­tion.

“It’s easy to look at these things in one- or two- or three-month cycles,” Ivatury said. “I don’t think any­one in this co­ali­tion is pre­tend­ing that we’re go­ing to pass a fed­er­al min­im­um-wage in­crease by Septem­ber or Oc­to­ber. That’s not what we’re look­ing at. We un­der­stand this is a long fight, and in a long fight you need to, as of­ten as pos­sible, draw at­ten­tion to the is­sue you’re try­ing to ad­vance and the real­ity be­hind it.”

Peg­ging the wage to in­fla­tion or some oth­er in­dex has re­ceived sup­port from both sides of the aisle in the past, as Mitt Rom­ney touted such a change on the 2012 cam­paign trail. The is­sue was thorny for the former Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor dur­ing the Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies, even­tu­ally con­vin­cing him to re­verse course. But Rom­ney and former primary op­pon­ents Rick San­tor­um and Tim Pawlenty have all re­newed calls for a min­im­um-wage hike in re­cent months. Mean­while some mem­bers of the more con­ser­vat­ive wing of the party, like Rep. Michele Bach­mann and former Rep. Ron Paul, have sug­ges­ted ab­ol­ish­ing the min­im­um wage al­to­geth­er.

Polls show strong pub­lic sup­port for a rise in the fed­er­al min­im­um wage, but ap­prov­al drops off pre­cip­it­ously with the ad­ded con­di­tion that such a change could res­ult in job losses. As a res­ult, ad­voc­ates’ toughest mis­sion is to con­vince the Amer­ic­an people not that the min­im­um wage is too low, but rather that a raise will not have ad­verse con­sequences for the broad­er eco­nomy.

“This is good for the eco­nomy. This is good for eco­nom­ic growth and eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment,” Rep. Tim Ry­an said on Monday’s con­fer­ence call. “The folks who would see an in­crease in the min­im­um wage would have more money in their pock­ets…. It ripples throughout the eco­nomy.”

The “Live the Wage Chal­lenge” echoes the strategy of pre­vi­ous cam­paigns over food stamps, which Schakowsky has par­ti­cip­ated in three times, as well as sim­il­ar ef­forts at the state level. The drives do not have a strong track re­cord of per­suad­ing polit­ic­al op­pon­ents, but they do serve a pur­pose, Ivatury says. Ad­voc­ates can later point to op­pon­ents’ un­will­ing­ness to try the chal­lenge as evid­ence that their op­pos­i­tion is based on the­ory, he ar­gues, rather than based on the harsh real­ity of life on the min­im­um wage.

Even though only a hand­ful of Demo­crat­ic law­makers have signed up for the chal­lenge so far, Ivatury says they are not the key tar­get, and he feels con­fid­ent the is­sue will not lose pri­or­ity on the party’s plat­form.

“Those Demo­crats are ac­tu­ally spon­sor­ing the bill to raise the wage, so they’ve already demon­strated their com­mit­ment,” he said. “It’s more im­port­ant that folks who don’t seem to un­der­stand ac­tu­ally try it and then make up their minds.”

After a big push on the wage in the spring, pro­gress­ives are work­ing to pre­vent a loss of mo­mentum as oth­er is­sues and ur­gent crises crowd it out on the na­tion­al stage. Ad­vocacy groups have em­ployed oth­er tac­tics in re­cent months to bring at­ten­tion to the is­sue, in­clud­ing a na­tion­al bus tour. And as law­makers pre­pare to head home for the Au­gust re­cess to face their con­stitu­ents and cam­paign for reelec­tion, or­gan­izers will be hop­ing this week’s push can bring the is­sue back in­to the na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion.

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