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Do the Math: You Couldn’t Live On Minimum Wage

| August 27, 2014

Not much improvement since the 80s. (Allen)

Not much improvement since the 80s. (Allen)

By Mark O’Brien

Opponents of raising the minimum wage should try living on that paltry $7.25 an hour.

The experience might change their minds, or at least make them a little less willing to consign people to living on $290 a week. Do the math; you can’t live on $290 a week (before taxes).


I had a close call with minimum wage last year, and I didn’t like it. Not one bit.

The experience only reinforced my support for raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10, the current proposal. Employers will cut some jobs, primarily for teenagers, but “lower-income workers as a whole (will) end up considerably better off,” as the Brookings Institute projected.

This was my first exposure to minimum wage in almost 50 years, since I was a high school junior making $1 an hour selling cigars, cigarettes and newspapers at a pharmacy in Massachusetts.

Back then, in teenage boy world, $1 an hour was good money. Cigarettes cost 28 cents a pack and gas cost 29 cents a gallon, taking care of two of my three adolescent passions. (Teenage girls were my top choice, but the passion was not mutual.)

context floridaI soon left minimum wage behind — until last year, when my writing business suddenly just stopped. No phone calls, no email, no clients. No single reason; it just happened.

After nervously twiddling my thumbs for two weeks, I got a job at $7.79 an hour, considerably better than the $7.25 minimum wage that has been in effect since 2009. It hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since then, even though the government dutifully includes cost-of-living raises for Social Security recipients and other pensioners.

Making $7.79 an hour is pretty grim, so I really balk at the thought of $7.25 an hour, which today buys barely one pack of cigarettes and two gallons of gas — not that I have those vices anymore.

No one should weep for me. The house is paid for, the children are grown and successful, and my wife is remarkably mellow and resourceful. Without all these advantages, I couldn’t have afforded to work for such low pay.

When I got my first check, I did a double take. The amount was very small — tiny, almost. It was hard to believe that it took 40 hours of my life to earn this pittance. I kept looking for an extra zero before the decimal, but no such luck.

Oh, and did I mention that this job, like much low-paying employment, required working nights and Saturdays?

Nor does the average low-paid salaried employee get such business-owner perks as getting tax breaks for his telephone, health insurance, computer and other work-related expenses.

Truth to tell, I was lucky to get the job; you seldom see employers rushing to hire 60-somethings. I was especially fortunate to get a full-time job; many employers limit workers to 20 or 30 hours. I cannot tell a lie: I got the job because the owner of the business is a friend.

Fortunately, my own business soon returned to life, and within five weeks I went back to work for myself full-time.

But first, I thanked the owner for hiring me, and then I thanked Lady Luck that I don’t have to live week to week like my co-workers did.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola, where he has lived since 1978. 

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19 Responses for “Do the Math: You Couldn’t Live On Minimum Wage”

  1. Minimum wage hurts employment.

    You are not supposed to live on minimum wage. It is for entry level workers.

    I worked for minimum wage when I entered the workforce at 16 and got a raise in 3 or 4 months.

    Why do you think there are so many High School kids who can’t get a job? Forcing companies to pay more for entry level jobs cuts out the untrained and increases unemployment.

    • Over 40 says:

      Have you Tried to get a job in Flagler County lately? Are you over the age of 40? Maybe we should go under cover and do a story about it for all the world to see I know a lot of 40+ aged people looking for jobs every day all they want to pay you is $8.00 an hour can YOU LIVE OFF THAT?

  2. Billy Bob says:

    Minimum wage not being enough is just one symptom of the bigger problem. Here’s a 2 minute animation that explains it perfectly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ik1y4ZNSjek

  3. NortonSmitty says:

    All you need to know about the way our leaders look at poverty is told in what the Federal Government sets as the Poverty Level. In this country in 2014, you are merely considered “poor” if you earn $24k annually for a family of four. That;s right, after taxes on your $400 per week income you are supposed to pay rent, food, clothe and educate you, your wife and two kids. And you are not homeless,destitute beggars, but merely a harmless sounding poor. I know if I myself alone earned $400 a week, I could not consistently sleep indoors, let alone be the head of a a family. And the Social Security and Disability Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) says our costs of inflation are rising a mere 2% per year. But I swear for a fact food, Gas, insurance, medical costs and other expenses are rising at least 10% annually, but somehow our inflation adjustment comes to 2% and we are not to even suspect somehow we are getting screwed? Did you ever wonder about that?
    Would it surprise you that the Feds have revised their standard calculations for determining who is poor, homeless, unemployed or the median income hundreds of times since 1980 and Reganomics and Austerity became the norm?
    Would you be astounded to learn that if we used the same calculations today that were used in 1980 our 6.8% unemployment rate would actually be 23.6%? Or that our 2% inflation would be over 10% by the rules then? Would you be absolutely shocked that our government is blowing smoke up our ass every day to keep us from paying attention to the constant drumbeat for the absolute need to cut taxes for millionaires and corporations? I hope you’re smarter than that.
    Here’s a long article I hope you take the time to read in it’s entirety. It will explain a lot of why we all know deep down we’re getting screwed, but don’t know why. Here’s why. Take your blood pressure pills first and take the time to read it all:
    http://www.alternet.org/economy/how-ultra-rich-01-have-sucked-even-more-americas-wealth-you-think

    What are we going to use in the 21st Century to replace torches and pitchforks? Especially going up against the Ferguson Police Armies of the modern Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. I hope you have an answer, because I sure as hell don’t.

    • Dave says:

      You’re right, NortonSmitty, but folks like the first poster seem to think it’s only the young that need to work, “entrance to the job market” claptrap and all that. In this downsized economy millions of older workers have been let go because they hurt the employer’s bottom line – they view older workers as liabilaties and don’t like to pay benefits of any kind. When you’re older, well, things start to fall apart and you need those benefits after working a lifetime.

      It’s only the willfully tone deaf and blind that refuse to comprehend we are not living in good times job wise. The very rich 1% is revelling in keeping us at each other’s throats while they rake in the lion’s share of profits.

    • Outsider says:

      If you are asking am I surprised that the government manipulates data and figures to lie to us, then no, I am not the least bit surprised. When a five pound bag of sugar becomes a four pound bag overnight with no change in price, that’s a 25% increase, yet the CPI shows a 2% inflation rate. Nothing surprises me anymore.

    • Dlf says:

      Have you ever got a job from a poor person or a company paying no tax?

  4. Steve Wolfe says:

    I have the answer: We’ll commission a study. At once!

    There. Help is on tbe way. Don’t you feel better already?

  5. tulip says:

    I totally agree, no one can live on minimum wage and that it should be entry level only for a short period of time.

    However, if they raise the minimum wage,. then the prices of products go up to compensate for the cost to businesses so we wind up paying more, thus wiping out any gains the employee earning minimum or low wages, gets. Or if the salary is “generous” the employer cuts the hours the person works.

    I wish there was an easy answer and fix to the problem.

  6. Kj Williams says:

    What this means is that we as taxpayers subsidize big companies’ profits. Earning this low wage puts some workers in need of AFDC or supplemental food stamps or welfare. Our tax dollars make it possible for employers to underpay (and increase bottom line.)

  7. Dlf says:

    Seems fair to me, who is going to pay for it…… The people who get the increase.

  8. Percy's mother says:

    Mark, how about starting your own business? That way you have power over your own destiny. Of course, it would require risk, long work hours (including weekends and sometimes holidays), hiring other people to help you in the business, not much sleep, worry, more worry, stress, more stress, maybe incurring some debt, maybe a lot of debt . . . but in a “few” years you might be making more than minimum wage.

    Perhaps instead of crying about your lot (or someone else’s) in life, the best thing would be ACTION . . . go back to school (it doesn’t matter how old you are), get a new skill so you can start your own business. ACTION rather than bemoaning your fate (through lack of action) and the fate of others (who wish to bemoan their fate but do nothing about it) is a much better alternative. That way, you take responsibility for your lot in life and don’t blame others for the fact that you have no money because you’re forced to live on minimum wage (which is entry level anyway).

    • lindaland says:

      Thank you so much for your understanding and caring –

      This is more in response to your “doesn’t matter how old you are”. I obviously do not know how old you are – but, I am 62. I worked from the time I was 16 – continuously. Went to school – received all that great education – which I am still paying for (which I figure covers the “incurring some debt, maybe a lot of debt”). Went back to school after being laid off at the age of 59. Tried to get a new job – yeah, right…. That went really well. So more debt. Not only debt – but the little in savings is gone. Started my own business – I made $3/hour on my first job (3 years ago). Took the job though, thought it would help get my name out there.

      The “in a “few” years you might be making more than minimum wage”. Nope – but I did manage to have a heart attack and a stroke. Fair trade I guess -I did take ACTION.

      Oh, did I mention my husband passed away 7 years ago. After working his entire life and serving in the Armed Forces during the Vietnam era, he too could not get any assistance. Actually, he wouldn’t ask for help. First because that is not something he would do and secondly, he knew he wouldn’t get any. He was not a career serviceman, so there were no benefits to be had. However he did receive the $250 we are all entitled to after we pass. I will swear that he committed a form of suicide. He had cancer – ONE of the medicines cost $3,000 every 3 months – without insurance that was a death sentence. So he decided to go into Hospice and just be made comfortable until the end. Why? It would be less of a burden on me. So this man, who worked his entire life and supported his country – could not even have a funeral. He was sent off with no proper funeral – he was cremated because it was “cheaper”. What am I going to do when I pass – I have made arrangements to donate my body to a medical facility. Why? Take a guess……

      Worked my entire life and contributed to the “system”. I took responsibility for myself – didn’t ask for any help. Well, guess what, I finally had to break and ask for help – Could I receive any? Again – No – somehow I was just shy of the permitted income – there was one time when I was literally $2 over the limit.

      So let’s see – I am now on disability – which I contributed to with MY earnings over 40 years. From that amount I pay for Medicare ($104/month), the minimum amount of medicines which are keeping me alive, rent and utilities. Food? That is hit and miss. I am allowed $15/month for food assistance.

      But you know who has it worse? The 70 and 80 year olds who have to get a “minimum” wage job to be able to eat each month. The elders who have worked THEIR (“took Action!) entire lives. The professors, the executives….. The servicemen who gave their lives to each and every one of us and now have no place to live.

      Please do not be so quick to tell others not to bemoan their situations – sometimes they are allowed to. Sometimes it even helps. You can do everything right and still have everything go wrong. I pray that you never get in a situation that will put you on the receiving end of your message.

  9. Pogo says:

    Always good to hear from the real Christians: “We’re all in this alone. Everyone is an island responsible for their own beach being washed away, etc., etc.”

    “…Let them eat cake…” Yeah, that’s the ticket…

    http://critiques.us/index.php?title=Critiques_Of_Libertarianism

  10. Jack McKeown says:

    Did you even read the article? The author does have their own business, this was a temporary situation.

  11. HonkeyDude says:

    @ Percy’s mother….
    With all do respect to all the readers out there, I highly suggest u climb out of the clouds of the gods,where your head is on Mt Olympia, because you don’t belong there and your mind isn’t even on the planet. You must be a know it all. answer this…. how many new businesses fail? College really and start a new career? Really let’s go with a 30-40 w/m who lost their job. Has child support for two kids and has them half the time. Makes minium wage. Works around the clock just for food housing and to get his kids to school. And is trying to start over. But still can’t cut it because of the w/m status and can’t get government assistance or a loan. let alone pay the child support for the kids, when he makes less money and has them half the time. He has to hit up food banks for his kids to eat and only gets the left covers. Maybe u remember the american dream from along time ago. Let me tell you. If your american let alone white and/or male it doesn’t exist. Poverty does and memories of faded dreams torment you through sleepless nights and hopes and dreams for your children comfort you

    • Nancy N. says:

      “But still can’t cut it because of the w/m status and can’t get government assistance or a loan”

      You poor, poor baby. It sucks SO badly being a white male with all that privilege you are so used to having that you can’t even see that you have it.

      I’d spend more time commiserating with you about your pathetic lot in life but I’m too busy trying to make ends meet as a white female trying to support my family making 70 cents on the dollar of what you make. Because, you know, having a uterus makes only 70% the employee you are.

  12. I/M/O says:

    I went to a supermarket last night. It was after 9PM. There was a Hispanic couple in front of me at the checkout line. On the counter the had a box of baby formula, a box of diapers, a gallon of milk and a few jars of baby food.

    The cashier rang it up. The husband swiped his card and the Cashier sad softly “I am sorry it was rejected; do you have anothe card.” The man said no. The cashier advised him to swipe his card again. Again it was refused.

    The husband looked at the wife and the wife looked at the husband and I could tell their desperate stares at each other was “What are we going to do?”

    I had hesitated to say “Let me get that for you” so before i did thaat th wife opened her purse and took out 4 one dollar bills handing them to the cashier who subtracted the cash from the total. Then they swiped the card again and the sale went thru.

    I stood there asking myself “What is going on in this nation when two parents cannot afford to buy their child food and diapers.”

    Good God this nation is on the wrong track. We taxpayer can pay $166,000 to care for each and every illegal immigrant child and these two parents could not afford a gallon of milk, a box of formula, dipers and a few jars of baby food on the 6th day of the month.

    It was like being back in te 1950’s when i would be sent to the local grocery store as a child and had to ask for credit to buy food. Mr. Jones and Mr. allen back then allowed my family of 8 a total of $25.00 per month in credit. Sometimes they coud not fill the entire order my Mom requested to feed her six children. So they would decide what they thought was to be sold on credit and what was to go back onto the shelf.

    Yesterday I read if Nancy Pelosi retired from Congress her life long pension will be $800.000 per year with free life long health benefits.

    The President just finished a multi millioon dollar bacation at Martha’s Vineyard. The Vice Presidnt spent his vacation in the ultra rich Hamptons Beach resort in New York. John Kerry spent his vacation on his yacht in Nantuckett. Hillary Clinton demands the Presidential Suite at every hotel she stays in.

    Last night I watched a young couple who could not afford food, milk and diapers for their baby.

    56 days until,the mid term elections.

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