Who Can Live Off It?

Minimum Wage Jobs and the People Who Work Them


There I stood: a sixteen year old girl behind a cash register, brown apron and visor to match, starting my first job. The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafted through the store as I looked at the racks of sugary donuts behind me. I was optimistic, excited, and confident in my skills after watching the few required hours of video training. The videos helped me learn the ways of the register and the coffee machines, but I was left confused and speechless when a customer went out of his way to tell me our donuts were always “disgusting and stale.”

Fast food, restaurants, bars, gas stations, retailers–I’ve worked in them all. In my five years of being a worker, all of my jobs have been part-time, minimum wage. When I first started I was making $7.25 an hour, and I thought it was amazing. It gave me enough money to start a savings account while still having some left over to go to the mall with my friends. But I know that’s not the case for everyone.

Minimum wage started in the United States through President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938 at just 25 cents per hour to make sure that the people working were making enough money to live on. The highest it has ever been was when it was just under two dollars in 1968 ($8.54 in current dollars). The minimum wage doesn’t rise with the inflation of our money, so fortunately, many presidents have increased it slightly over the years to bring it to the $7.25 it is currently. However, that $7.25 still isn’t enough for most workers.

No one can live off minimum wage anymore. The most hours per week a part-time employee making minimum wage can work is 30, which means that if the federal minimum wage is $7.25, the most these workers can get paid is $217.50. If we take that $217.50 and assume the employee works exactly 30 hours every week for the entire year without missing any shifts, they will make exactly $11,341.08 per year, which is still under the United States’ poverty level of $11,880 for just one person–never mind if they are raising a family. And that’s even before taxes get taken out of each paycheck.

When FDR worked with Congress to pass the minimum wage bill almost eighty years ago, his goal was for every working citizen in the country to make enough money to live comfortably. In 1938 the night before he signed the Fair Labor Standards Act that created the federal minimum wage, in his Fireside Chat he said, “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, who has been turning his employees over to the Government relief rolls in order to preserve his company’s undistributed reserves, tell you – using his stockholders’ money to pay the postage for his personal opinions — tell you that a wage of $11.00 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”

Many states actually have their own minimum wage. Twenty-nine out of our fifty states have set their minimum wages higher than the federal, and a few of the states have actually set their wages lower. A lot of this has to do with each state’s living wages and taxes. I live in Connecticut for example, and the Public Act 14-1 states that our minimum wage will rise to “not less than ten dollars and ten cents per hour” by January 1, 2017. Even some of the bigger cities in the States have created their own wages like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, who plan to raise their minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020. 

Now that I’m in my twenties, I have to spend my paychecks a little differently than when I was sixteen. Some of it still goes into my savings, but that’s after I pay my rent, my utilities bills, my credit card bills, buy groceries, etc. I’m still working a part-time minimum wage job, and I’m finding it harder and harder to have any substantial “leftover” money that I can tuck away in my savings–but I’m still lucky. There are people who are paying everything I am plus however much having a family costs. The groceries, the utilities–almost everything they have to pay for will be at least two or three times the amount of what I pay.

Minimum wage jobs were made for entry-level employees to work their way up to either promotions within their company or getting a better paying job. Because of this, the adults who end up working minimum wage jobs are stigmatized. “Some customers think you’re stupid because you’re behind the counter, but I have an education,” said Dre Finley in an interview with CNN. Finley is a twenty-four year old with an associates degree who works at an Arby’s in Florida, earning the minimum wage. A lot of people think that minimum wage jobs are only for those who haven’t gotten degrees, but with the average minimum wage worker being 35 years old, it’s not an issue of education but one of opportunity.

The large number of people getting trapped in entry-level jobs is at least partly the fault of the overall economy,” said Ben Casselman in his article for fivethirtyeight.com. Since there was a decrease in jobs, people took minimum wage jobs that they were overqualified for and ended up not being able to advance to a better paying job like they would have in better economic times. These workers end up stuck in a job that pays them well below the poverty limit with very little chance for career advancement.

And these jobs aren’t easy. More times than not your schedule is constantly changing. One week you might work twenty-six hours, and the next you might only work eight. Because of this, the paychecks are never consistent, which is extremely inconvenient considering you never really know how much money you’ll be making until the week of. The hours are not the greatest, either. You could either get a really good shift, like a normal nine to five, or you could work a closing shift where you don’t get out until eleven at night. At the job I have currently, every six weeks or so some of the employees (including me) work a few consecutive overnight shifts from nine at night to six in the morning called “floor sets” where we completely rebuilt and rearrange the entire store to put out new product.

If that wasn’t enough, most of the time the customers are extremely rude. That first incident was only the beginning of many more just like it. Whether the register was running too slowly, I couldn’t take their expired coupon, or they were just having a bad day, some people find it easy to just blame the person behind the counter.

Right now, there are people who cannot afford to feed their families even though they are working forty hours a week, and that is unacceptable. During the State of the Union address in 2015, President Obama said, “Of course, nothing helps families make ends meet like higher wages…and to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”

From 1938 to 2015, it seems like we have only moved forward in our fight for decent paying wages in the United States. President Elect Donald Trump seems to have mixed opinions on how he believes the minimum wage should be handled. He’s been quoted saying that he believes the wage was too high back in 2015, but this past year he’s said that it should go up, whether that be through raising the federal wage or having the individual states decide themselves what their wages should be.

With about 20.6 million people getting paid near minimum wage, this issue is extremely prevalent. Trump and Congress cannot waver on a decision to raise the minimum wage–there are people who can’t afford it.


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