“Anyone who has struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” — James Baldwin
I’m not poor, but I’m not rich; according to my W2, I’m middle-class. I’ve never had sleep for dinner, but I’m very familiar with poverty because I’ve witnessed it firsthand. In my neighborhood, nobody was “fly on your eyeball, too weak to blink, dying of starvation, Save the Children poor,” but there were a lot of third-time hand-me-downs and kids rocking with Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo well after the first PlayStation was on the market. I’m not making this plea for myself, but instead for the families that have to postpone Christmas until tax time, and the folks working two jobs just to keep the lights on, instead of those trying to keep up with the Joneses.
What’s the plea? The minimum wage needs to be raised to $15.
First, let’s start with a little history. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, drafted by Alabama Sen. Hugo Black, established the national minimum wage of 40 cents per hour, time and a half for overtime, and the standard 40-hour workweek; it also prohibited child labor that could be deemed oppressive. This was a big deal because it was the beginning of the nation’s financial rebound that President Herbert Hoover failed to deliver with his “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” spiel. The FLSA actually ended sweatshop labor in the United States. (Before women and children in Taiwan were whipping up shirts in dimly lit warehouses, women and children were doing it in dimly lit warehouses in Brooklyn.) The purpose of creating a minimum wage was to put an end to unfair wage practices, and Franklin Roosevelt considered the FLSA one of the most important parts of the New Deal legislation.
Truth be told, I’ve forgotten all the details, but there was this story in heavy rotation on BuzzFeed around this time last year. A teacher from some school somewhere in America gave every student in his class a piece of paper. He told them all to ball it up, then throw it in the trash can, sitting in front of the class, from their seats. Most of the students seated in the front of the class made it, a handful from the middle made it and one of the students seated in the back of the class made it. The point of the exercise was to show how the opportunity for success works. Having ambition, ingenuity and intelligence is dope, but without being in a position to use it, more times than not, it’s like having a submarine on dry land.
Working-class families are literally creating the next wave of the working class in an endless cycle that keeps the bottom at the bottom. Pick up your yearbook and look up the kid voted most likely to succeed. Did he or she succeed, or is he or she punching the clock just like you instead of gearing up to be the next Barack Obama? The guy voted most likely to succeed in my senior class currently lives in Louisiana as a tour-bus driver and has an active GoFundMe page because he’s trying to raise money to move his family to Pennsylvania.
It’s a common misconception that minimum wage employees are the lazy rejects of society or teenage, pimpled-face kids flipping burgers. Contrary to those stereotypes, the majority of low-wage workers are adults with families. The average fast-food employee is actually 29 and not some 16-year-old kid living at home with his parents and saving up for the newest Jordans.
The truth is, about 26 percent of the workforce earns less than $10.55 hourly (about $22,000 yearly, which is below the poverty line of $23,000 in the United States), and 75 percent of them are 20 years old or older. These are the employees that make up America’s backbone, not just the guy making your venti latte at Starbucks. These are your day care employees, home care providers, preschool teachers, pharmacy techs, EMTs and auto mechanics. Can you really tell the guy holding the defibrillator to your loved one’s chest or the lady refilling your grandmother’s prescription that they don’t deserve a starting hourly wage of $15?
The prices of being poor cost on both ends of the economic spectrum, but those not living in poverty don’t see it and feel it in the same ways. It comes out of your taxes for the things like food stamps, Medicaid, prisons and insurance premiums for the next time someone breaks into a home and takes a flat-screen off the wall.
The people on the underside of the poverty line feel the cost of poverty directly. It starts with their take-home pay before they even spend a dime because the lack of viable banking options. Most low-income families live check to check and therefore can’t keep active banking accounts because of the inability to maintain balance minimums. In turn, they are forced to pay high fees at check-cashing places and use prepaid check cards (e.g., the RushCard). Because the poor and bad credit are normally a package deal, they are taxed with higher interest rates on everything from personal loans to credit cards to financing furniture. This results in more debt for the same money lent to the middle and upper classes. Even owning a car in a low-income neighborhood is more expensive because car-insurance costs are higher in high-crime areas.
Raising the minimum wage to just $10.10 an hour, financial analysts say, would boost economic growth by $22 billion because people who make more money spend more money. This immediately counteracts the supposed drastic inflation on your dollar-menu purchases. Just look at four companies with most of the minimum wage employees (Wal-Mart, Taco Bell/KFC/Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and Target). They generate billions in profits, which continue to rise. Most of us spend money with at least one of these companies every week, while the CEOs live like Scrooge McDuck and pay their front-line employees about the same as the cost of a supersized Extra Value Meal.
They say that America is the land of opportunity, but opportunity is rarely accessible from Skid Row.
Jean DeGrate is an Uptown D.C. native. If you’re looking for him on social media, the name’s always the same: @JeanDeGrate.