Minimum wage workers have gone on strike time and time again to demand they be paid something they can live on. College graduates sink under their student loans, often unable to make their loan payments even with a salary a little above legal minimum wage. The proposed solution to these problems, increase minimum wage to a ‘living wage.’ Through all of this, I feel like the most important question isn’t being asked, let alone answered. What is a living wage?
I’m under the impression there is no agreement on this. The other week, I was watching the morning news. They were speaking with a family whose adult children still lived at home. Their oldest was around 26-years-old and said she didn’t make enough to live on her own. She was making a salary of $38,000. I call bull shit. Did she think bi-weekly manicures were something she should be able to afford under a living wage? How could $38,000 a year not be enough for one person?
For most of the time I’ve lived in the Chicago area, an area I understand is rather expensive to live in, I was making less than that girl’s wage. With that, I was able to afford my own apartment, cable, internet, a car and a smart phone. I was also able to pay my student loans with ease. That tells me I was not making something above a living wage. That leads me to believe that, even in a place where the cost of living is a little higher than Chicagoland, $38,000 is at least living wage.
There are expenses I do not indulge in, though. Getting a manicure every two weeks isn’t important to me. I don’t have HBO. In addition, there are some things I don’t have or do that others may consider necessities. For example, I don’t wear makeup. It’s not a necessity to me, but clearly it is to most people.
Some people would look at how I live and gawk in horror. How can I live in an apartment too small to have a dining table? How can I trust a car held together by tape (yes, I have duck tape repairs on my car)? Other might look at my situation and think I must be living the high life since I can afford my own apartment without the need for a roommate. They might consider it impressive I own a car at all.
With such discrepancy between what is and isn’t a basic necessity, how can we define a living wage?
I support a living wage, but I don’t necessarily support an exact number. On Facebook, a friend shared something showing her support for an $11 minimum wage. When I was in college, working as a self-proclaimed online dating expert, I made $10 an hour. Given the standard of living in that area, that was more than enough to live on. This leads me to believe that any living wage law should be more than a number. Someone somewhere needs to define exactly what a person should be able to afford on a living wage.
This would probably very by state and family. I don’t near nearly as much money as a single mother. Is it fair for both of us to earn the same living wage if I’m paying for one person while she pays for two or more? Maybe it makes sense if she gets child support, but not every single mother does. Should every single parent with a living wage salary get more because they have children? If so, how will that affect their ability to get a job? Certainly it would then become financially better for a company to hire a single person on minimum wage then a single parent to whom they’ll have to pay more.
Maybe this can be fixed by requiring a different living wage depending on the number of dependents a person supports and making it illegal for an employer to ask if a person has dependents. That’s not really that great either, since that means the employer may not know if they will have to pay someone $9 and hour or $12 an hour before hiring them.
That’s just one side of the problem. I haven’t even gotten to the things you should be able to buy on a living wage. How much should be set aside for food? Cable, makeup and smartphones might be considered luxuries which a person making a living wage shouldn’t have, but some will argue internet is a necessity. I’ve seen organization propose plans to provide free internet access to poor families (largely to help their school age children do their school work). If we somehow manage to come to an agreement on what you should and shouldn’t be able to afford on a living wage, how can we insure people are actually buying the right items?
I support a living wage, but I feel like all these questions need to be answered in order for it solve anything. Arbitrarily increasing the minimum wage may do more harm than good to the economy without the answers.
Do you support a living wage? How much do you think a living wage should be and what should it afford? Have you ever tried to support yourself or your family on minimum wage?