Not long after I started this blog, I raised questions about the value of the Food Stamp Challenge. This exercise, as you may know, calls on participants to feed themselves — and if they choose, their families — on the cash equivalent of the average SNAP (food stamp) benefit.
This week, we’re in the midst of a different sort of challenge. Elected officials, community leaders, congregations and the likes of thee and me are urged to live, for a week, on what a full-time minimum wage worker has to spend, less housing costs and taxes. (But see below.)
The minimum wage here is $7.25 per hour — the federal minimum that fully phased in five years ago. It remains the minimum in 28 states and the U.S. territories.
The challenge sponsors obviously want Congress to raise the wage, which it surely won’t unless and until Democrats gain a majority in the House and a larger majority in the Senate. Either that or a very different sort of Republican leadership to work with.
But this in itself doesn’t argue against the challenge. The aim, I take it, is to call attention in a new, social-media-oriented way to how far the minimum wage falls short of daily living costs.
We’re encouraged to tweet our experience and/or share it in other ways. Some of the handful of Democrats in Congress who said they’d participate have done just that. None of them, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, needs the experience to support the minimum wage increase that’s still stuck in the Senate.
Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio says, “[I]t’s important for those of us in leadership positions … to make sure … we really understand the deep challenges people face.”
But Live the Wage, as the week-long challenge is called, will do no such thing — something the guidance generally acknowledges, but understates.
The minimum wage budget for the week is $77. The organizers arrive at this by deducting average taxes that are roughly double the worker’s share of payroll taxes and $176.48, which is said to be the average for housing.
The average housing cost then is about $706 a month. I’m told this figure comes from the Economic Policy Institute and represents the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment.
It still seems to me very low — and way too low in many parts of the country. And of course, the apartment would be awfully crowded for a minimum wage worker with children.
More importantly, the $77 doesn’t exclude only housing and taxes. Challenge-takers don’t have to deal with any other “long-term and inflexible costs,” as the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s alert to the challenge reassuringly notes.
So loan payments, healthcare and childcare costs are all explicitly off-budget. So, for obvious reasons, are fees many low-income workers incur because they don’t have bank accounts — or in some cases do, but get paid with debit cards.
Bottom line, according to the guidance, is that the $77 must cover only meals, groceries, recreation and transportation. But recall that transportation doesn’t include car payments or insurance.
As with the Food Stamp Challenge, however, the most important limit is that it’s very brief — and can end whenever the going gets too tough.
Congressman Ryan has stocked up on diapers, but if the baby needs more, he’ll surely buy them — just as he snagged a pork chop after airport security officers took his jars of peanut butter and jelly during his Food Stamp Challenge.
That’s okay, the challenge guidance says. The point is “to give a glimpse of how little the minimum wage provides a working family in this country.”
But, it adds, no one is “expected or encouraged to default on any legal, financial, work or family obligations.” And surely no participant will.
So no one’s going to glimpse the decisions about which bills to pay and not, the acute pressures when the car breaks down or the kid gets sick — or the breadwinner, for that matter. No one’s going to feel despair when there’s not enough money for diapers.
If the Live the Wage challenge actually raises awareness among the friends, relatives, Twitter followers and the like that participants are to share their glimpses with, then perhaps it’s all to the good.
But I’ve got a hard time believing that anyone who’d support a minimum wage increase doesn’t already know that $7.25 an hour isn’t enough to live on, since a large majority of voters do.
And the glimpses aren’t going to make a whit of difference to Republican leaders in Congress.
If they had the slightest interest in what life below the poverty line is like, they’d be better off listening to what the real experts like Witnesses for Hunger Tianna Gaines Turner and Barbie Izquierdo have to say.