The wonderful Laura Clawson posted a story to the DKos Labor roll recently about fast food workers who are rebelling against their employers for wage theft, amongst other violations of labor laws. In turn, this linked to an NYT article that spoke plainly about some of the things that fast food workers are forced to go through just to make their meager ends meet.

Naquasia Legrand, a 22-year-old from Canarsie, Brooklyn, works at two KFCs. She washes dishes at one for $7.75 and mops floors at the other for $8. She says she must work four or five hours each week off the clock.

She needed to buy a MetroCard last week so she skipped lunch. She shakes her head. “I think I deserve to eat lunch.”

There was a Mexican man with gray hair and a bushy mustache who trained as an architect. His two daughters live in Mexico and depend on him, and he sleeps in a basement and makes $5 an hour delivering Papa John’s pizza.

“I delivered during Hurricane Sandy,” he said in Spanish. “They told us to ride bent over, so that the pizzas didn’t get wet.”

There are more stories than this, and certainly, New York is not the only place in America where wage theft happens - I've had it happen to me, but I was too young and stupid to realize it. However, the article I mentioned above is one of the few that the NYT decided to allow comments on, and so I began to read. Normally, the comments section of any newspaper's website is a total cesspool filled with people who hate anyone that isn't exactly like them, but there were quite a few well-reasoned commenters who actually made good arguments.

More below the squiggle.

And that's when I came across this comment by a "JV" out of "Westchester":

I'm sorry but not every job can, or should, be compensated to the degree that it can support an entire family. I simply don't believe that a position that doesn't require extensive training or an advanced degree should pay enough to support three children - and an unemployed husband.

It used to be that many fast food jobs were held by high school kids. Newspapers were delivered (on foot) by a by a local teenager before school. The income they brought in was a SUPPLEMENT and the jobs provided opportunities for skills and responsibility.

Today, my paper is thrown out a car window by a middle aged man. And I can't remember when I last saw anyone younger than 25 working at the local Dunkin Donuts.

To expect that these jobs will support entire families with many mouths to feed, or net enough to afford some rent after sending money "back home" - especially in the tri-state area - is simply expecting too much.

The problem with his line of reasoning is that the world has changed (and not for the better) since. There was a day when someone working minimum wage actually could make all of their monthly bills, including rent. But that time is long since past, although it could very easily be argued that we should go back to that ideal.

In fact, he even makes a point of mentioning how circumstances have changed in how his paper is now delivered by someone who's middle aged, and he sees the same demographic working at his local Dunkin Donuts.

A job that can be filled by anyone with a minimum of training and effort, while it certainly should not pay an extravagant or even "mid-line" wage, definitely should pay at least enough that someone can live on their own without the need of additional people to support them. I would think that the concept of "livable wage" should, ideally, mean that a person who is employed earns enough money to completely support themselves with a small amount left over for savings purposes or emergencies.


  • The rent in my complex for a 1-bedroom apartment is $595. (It should be noted that this is some of the lowest rent possible outside of subsidized housing in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area.)
  • The complex pays all utilities except electric, which averages out to roughly $75/mo.
  • The complex is very poorly maintained, as a result, the phone lines in the building don't work. Hence, people have cell phones. This incurs charges of anywhere from $40 to $80 a month, depending on carrier, but the lower end of this is extremely rare, so we'll say $80, which is what it is for most people on one of the major cell phone carriers.
  • Internet service in the building is limited to either satellite (with you risking charges from the apartment complex for violating lease terms) or via Comcast. If you opt to be safe (as I do), you're looking at about $80/mo just for standard internet service.
  • Car insurance rates are substantially higher in Michigan due to forced unlimited medical liability coverage for all plans. My car insurance costs me roughly $840/year, or about $70 a month (and that's on the low side for most people; I know many people who spend upwards of $120/mo on their insurance)

Monthly, this means you have to earn, after taxes, a minimum of $900/mo just to pay these bills and end up with a net zero balance at the end of the month. But there are things that are not on the list above that are required - such as food, gasoline, laundry, car maintenance, leisure, and savings that aren't here.

My economic situation is poor enough that I receive SNAP benefits to offset my low income. Since the pay rate that I'm using for illustration doesn't match my situation, I used a calculator to estimate what I would receive in food stamp benefits if this were the case. I would receive (without a caseworker going over things) $122/mo in food stamp benefits at the minimum wage in Michigan. This comes out to about $4/day for food, a mark that is absurdly low and unsustainable. At this rate, I would have to spend anywhere from $4-6 extra per day to cover meals, none of which are particularly healthy, but they're (barely) affordable. So, in an average 30-day month, I spend about $120-160 for food. For purposes of this calculation, I'll take the average, so we'll say $140/mo.

Gasoline is slightly above average here, running about $3.59/gal - about 10 cents higher than the average. My car takes in about 13 gallons on a fillup, so about $45/tank, and I tend to fill up twice in a month (so $90/mo for gas).

Car maintenance is more frequent for me due to the age of my car and the short drives I take as part of my job (my job is only about 2 miles away, but I can't be without my car for it). Oil changes tend to happen bimonthly for me, and they run about $40 each time, so I spend $20/mo for routine maintenance on my car.

Laundry for me tends to run anywhere from $20-25 monthly, with the dry cleaning I have to routinely do as a part of my job.

Add in these costs above ($140/mo for food, $90/mo for gas, $20/mo for car maintenance, $20 for laundry) adds in an additional $270 monthly, bringing the grand total to $1170 a month just to break even here.

Minimum wage in Michigan is $7.40/hr. Assuming you're fortunate enough to have been given a full time job at this rate, you will earn (before taxes) $296/wk. After taxes (using a payroll tax calculator) you get slightly more than $261/wk.

$261/wk turns into $1,044/mo which falls short of the break-even mark required by $136. Even if I was completely freed from taxes and was able to keep every penny of my paycheck, I would still only make $1,160/mo, which is still $10 short of the break-even point.

This calculation assumes a number of things which also rarely happen - that you'll have a 40-hour work week at minimum wage, that your costs remain fixed or have a very narrow band of fluctuation, and other highly unrealistic things, such as having NO other expenses whatsoever than what's listed here (car payments, credit cards, loans, etc).

What's the conclusion from all of this?

Minimum wage is not a livable wage, and would require a substantial boost to be considered as such.

What would "livable" be under this model? Well, let's assume that my wage gets bumped to $10.00/hour. Again, assuming a 40-hour work week, take-home pay will be $362/wk. That becomes $1,448 monthly, clearing the break-even mark by $278 every month. That's pretty good for this area. However, that's not as good as it might seem, because at this level, the food assistance vanishes - taking away that $122/mo I was getting and cutting the extra down to $156 extra per month.

Let's push the mark even further. Let's say that my pay rate gets pushed even higher, to $12/hr. That's $480/wk, or $1,920/mo. That's awesome, because now I'm $628 over the mark. That might be a pretty good "livable" wage for one person.

Of course, this would have to scale based on many local factors, but perhaps the thing to do is to force legislatures to determine what a "livable wage" is based on a number of factors, and make employers publish that data long with minimum wage laws. We don't even have to enact a requirement that employers adhere to livable wage standards, just publish the data -- and let the court of public opinion shame employers into actually giving employees enough money to survive on. What do you think would happen if employers were forced to publish the fact that they pay the lion's share of their workers two-thirds of the state livable wage guidelines? Would that change the climate back in favor of the modern wage-earner?

Originally posted to CryingLiberty on Sat Jul 06, 2013 at 01:32 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


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