"I had never scrutinized prices while food shopping to this extent," he said, "I even weighed two different kinds of potatoes to see where I could catch a break."
Rep. Hornstein is one of five Minnesota lawmakers taking the Working America Minimum Wage Challenge. Reps. Hornstein, John Lesch, Karen Clark, Metsa, and Shannon Savick are living this week as if they made $7.25 an hour, an effort to raise awareness of the minimum wage as legislators consider increasing it to $9.50 by 2015.
From grocery shopping to transportation, Rep. Hornstein is already "feeling the ‘challenge' part of the minimum wage challenge."
"I decided to take transit to the Capitol because that would allow for three extra dollars for food," he reported.
Luckily, the Minneapolis lawmaker lives and works in the same area, and has access to a robust public transit system. Rep. Shannon Savick, who hails from Wells, isn't so lucky: she has a two hour drive to work.
"The transportation budget is going to be very tight because I need to make a few drives for work that will take up nearly all of it," she told us, "These challenges really go to show just how difficult it can be for low wage workers to get by on the minimum wage alone."
With the $35 per week food budget, Rep. Savick is trying to go without. "I think I'm doing well with the food budget mostly by eating a little less and essentially skipping breakfast," adding that her lunch two days in a row consisted of "a cup of soup and some milk."
"Dinner was a bag of Ramen noodles for under $1," said Hornstein, "After one day I am realizing that living on this budget forces choices all the time."
The low-wage workers we've talked to all mention these forced choices; whether it's choosing between medicine and food or between paying the heating bill or buying diapers for their kids.
"Today's effective minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or $15,080 a year for a full-time worker, is not enough to meet basic needs—not for an individual or a family," writes John Clay of the Jobs Now Coalition. "A Minnesota family of two full-time working adults with two children, each worker must earn $14.03 per hour to cover the cost of basic needs."
As much as they try to plan their budgets, being constantly cognizant of every cent has its limits. To stretch his food dollars, Rep. Hornstein tried breakfast at the McDonald's down the street from the Capitol. "I got a glass of orange juice with my dollar breakfast burrito which added another $1.79 to the tab," he said, "I won't make that mistake again."