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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
Clinton Foundation Staffers Steered Biz to Bill
1 hours ago

"Two chief fundraisers for the Clinton Foundation pressed corporate donors to steer business opportunities to former President Bill Clinton as well, according to a hacked memo published Wednesday by WikiLeaks. The November 2011 memo from Douglas Band, at the time a top aide to Mr. Clinton, outlines extensive fundraising efforts that Mr. Band and a partner deployed on behalf of the Clinton Foundation and how that work sometimes translated into large speaking fees and other paid work for Mr. Clinton."

Chef Jose Andres Campaigns With Clinton
9 hours ago
White House Weighs in Against Non-Compete Contracts
10 hours ago

"The Obama administration on Tuesday called on U.S. states to ban agreements prohibiting many workers from moving to their employers’ rivals, saying it would lead to a more competitive labor market and faster wage growth. The administration said so-called non-compete agreements interfere with worker mobility and states should consider barring companies from requiring low-wage workers and other employees who are not privy to trade secrets or other special circumstances to sign them."

House Investigators Already Sharpening Their Spears for Clinton
11 hours ago

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz plans to spend "years, come January, probing the record of a President Hillary Clinton." Chaffetz told the Washington Post: “It’s a target-rich environment. Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.”

Clinton Super PAC Enters the House Fray
15 hours ago

Priorities USA, the super PAC aligned with the Clinton campaign, which has already gotten involved in two Senate races, is now expanding into House races. The group released a 30 second spot which serves to hit Donald Trump and Iowa Rep. Rod Blum, who is in a tough race to win re-election in Iowa's first congressional district. The super PAC's expansion into House and Senate races shows a high level of confidence in Clinton's standing against Trump.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.