In the past three months, I’ve met with workers earning at or near the minimum wage in 13 cities across the country. These workers have educated me about what it’s like to live and try to raise a family on the minimum wage. They have also shared with me what a moderate increase in the minimum wage – like the one President Obama has proposed, from $7.25 to $9 an hour – would mean in their lives. They’ve told stories of difficult daily choices, of sacrificing one necessity for another, just to survive.
This week, I traveled to Baltimore to visit Our Daily Bread Employment Center, where I heard some of the most compelling stories yet. Both the current and former labor secretaries of Maryland, as well as representatives from the mayor’s office, joined me in listening to about two dozen workers from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some were fighting to overcome mistakes made earlier in life, some either had degrees or were pursuing post-secondary education; but they all agreed raising the minimum wage to $9 would give them just enough breathing room to support their families and increase their chances of advancement.
De’Warren has a bachelor’s degree and someday hopes to start his own business. But this winter, his minimum wage salary forced him to choose between paying the electric bill and purchasing food for his kids. He chose food. When his electricity was cut off, he had to store the food in plastic coolers and tried to grill everything outside before it spoiled.
Erin, who works at a food kiosk in the mall making the minimum wage, fought back tears as she described recently taking on a second job with one goal in mind: getting a place for her and her son to live. “I’ve been homeless since my son was born,” Erin said. “Our survival has depended completely on help from friends, or organizations like Our Daily Bread, and I can’t live like this much longer.”
Kali, another single mom, had a similar story. Currently living in a homeless shelter with her daughter, Kali made it clear that she doesn’t have any illusions about affording luxuries, even if the minimum wage is raised: “I’m not trying to buy my daughter a video game system here – I’m trying to put a decent roof over her head.”
Other similar stories were echoed around the table. Jonathan, a 25-year old father, knows he needs to go back to school to upgrade his skills but can’t afford to. Erin, a waitress, admitted to dragging herself to work with the flu because she couldn’t afford to lose a day’s pay. And Laura, a fast food employee, would like to get her and her teenage daughter off of food stamps.
The roundtable lasted 30 minutes longer than scheduled, and I would have let it go on all day had I been able. Afterward, a reporter asked me if I’d describe the event as heart-wrenching. While I understood why he asked the question, I said “no.” These low-wage workers have shared their stories for me; their resolve, their resilience, their depth of commitment to their families should ennoble and empower all of us.
The roundtables have convinced me that these low-wage workers are their own best advocates. Beyond all of the powerful economic arguments in favor, raising the minimum wage is an issue of human dignity. Eddie, one of the roundtable participants, put it as well as I ever could: “With a raise, it will make people go out more sincerely and pursue work. As a people, as Americans, we need something to look forward to.”
The president has encouraged me to continue giving these hardworking Americans an opportunity to be heard. So my staff and I will move forward with our minimum wage tour in the coming weeks, gathering and amplifying more stories as we build momentum for the president’s proposal.
Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.