Since President Obama’s State of the Union address in February, I’ve traveled across the country meeting workers trying to survive while earning at or near the minimum wage. Everywhere I’ve gone their stories have been similarly poignant and powerful – hardworking Americans forced to decide which bill to pay, which meal to skip or which relative to borrow money from that month. Every time I hear a worker share his or her story, I’m more convinced than ever that the president’s proposal to raise the national minimum wage to $9 (and index it to inflation thereafter) is the right thing to do – not just morally, but economically as well.
Last week I visited Phoenix and Las Vegas. While both states have mechanisms that could raise their state minimum wages above the federal floor, workers in both places shared experiences that were strikingly similar to the stories I heard from workers in any of the cities I had visited previously.
In Phoenix, I met with workers at UMOM New Day Centers, a local nonprofit that provides safe shelter and other support services for homeless families. Many of the residents living at UMOM are working – several of them full-time – at or near the minimum wage. They cannot afford their own places to live.
The first four workers who spoke were single mothers. Three working moms had utilized UMOM’s services at one point or another. Stephanie currently is studying to become a dental hygienist, while working at the minimum wage, in hopes of eventually landing a better-paying job. Anita has a degree in economics and four children, two of whom have special needs. She’s regularly forced to choose between working enough hours to put food on the table and accompanying her kids to a long list of doctor’s appointments.
In Las Vegas, at a local church that serves as a hub for many of the area’s social services, I talked with workers doing everything they can to get by on paychecks that never allow them to catch up. Kineta, whose job at a national retail chain pays near the state minimum wage, has been working since she was 11. “Working is in my blood,” she told me. “But every year I feel like I make less.” When Kineta can’t afford her blood pressure medication, she either goes without or borrows similar medication from friends – whether or not the dosage is right. Stacey has sold his blood when his paycheck didn’t cover his monthly expenses. Thankfully, he has family in the area; otherwise, he would have no childcare options when he has to work.
I also met a trio of young people in Las Vegas doing everything that our society is asking of them – attempting to finish school or learn specialized skills at a local culinary academy – but still living in a youth homeless shelter. Like several of the workers in Phoenix, these individuals relied on a community organization to provide a roof over their heads. This situation is a reality for too many hardworking Americans. At the very least, we should be able to agree that if someone is working, they shouldn’t be homeless. Colby, age 22, put the hardship in terms all of us could understand. “This shirt I’m wearing?” he began. “I’ve had it since I was 18, and these shoes since I was 17. The only thing I know I have to have is food.”
In Phoenix, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Tampa, Boston, Orlando, Cleveland and Philadelphia, I’ve met workers of every age, race, ethnicity and background. In superficial ways, they could have not been more different. But what unites all of them is this: the desire to work hard and the opportunity to make life better for themselves and their families. Too many of them are stuck at a wage that forces them to depend on the generosity of community organizations, family, friends or government just to stay above water. I haven’t met anyone who is looking for a handout. To the contrary, they just want a fair wage so they don’t have to rely on others.
Gloria, another mother who joined me at the Phoenix roundtable, said, “As mothers, we show our kids that when things get tough, moms get tougher.” Across the table, Anita seemed to finish her thought. “You can’t judge people who are working but still need a little bit of help. A raise in the minimum wage is just about fairness, and about giving people a fighting chance to achieve the American Dream.”
Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.