Defining the Complexity of Living Wages in America

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?

This photo, “"Minimum wage?!" Singapore Clarke Quay Elgin Bridge underpass 2013 (by RSCLS street art collective)” is copyright (c) 2014 Denis Bocquet and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license
This photo, “”Minimum wage?!” Singapore Clarke Quay Elgin Bridge underpass 2013 (by RSCLS street art collective)” is copyright (c) 2014 Denis Bocquet and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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? 

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46 thoughts on “Defining the Complexity of Living Wages in America”

  1. I think it should vary by location and cost of living. I believe minimum wage in New York City is 8.00$ which is absurd, while 8$ an hour in the middle of Wyoming wouldn’t be too bad.

    I currently live at or slight above the US poverty line making about 18,000$ a year and I’m happy as can be. I can do this because I live bare bone, the things I only need. It’s a very minimalist lifestyle and it works for me for the time being.

    1. it’s $8 in Illinois as well. I don’t think $8 would be enough even in Iowa, where I was making $10 an hour. People should know they need to live on the bare minimum, but that bare minimum is different for each person. Even if they try, someone with student loans will need a different minimum then someone without. I think that makes it hard for the government, even on a state level, to come up with one blanket minimum wage.

  2. I get your point and it may have some merit, however when one person starts deciding for another person how much they should earn and what they can have with that money, isn’t that called socialism?

    1. I’m just talking minimum wage here, not everyone’s salaries. It has to be set by someone. As for what they can buy, I’m not suggesting that the best solution is to dictate exactly what someone on a living wage should buy, but I am saying that the government should inform us what they mean by a minimum wage. What sort of things do they expect people to purchase on that? Someone needs to show the logic behind whatever number is chosen.

      Beyond that, it is up to choice, but I think there also needs to be some kind of education. I’m not talking about mandated education, but just making budgeting education available to the public would be fantastic.

  3. To establish a fixed standard for a living wage is a slippery slope. What’s next? Perhaps telling stores how much they can charge for a product? I’m a proponent of letting the free market set the wage. It certainly provided me with the impetus to improve myself on my own, and by not handing me a wage as some sort of entitlement.

    1. I get that, but I know that having no minimum wage would work. People will take advantage of those who are desperate and pay them next to nothing. Then we’d be discussing how to fix that.

      1. Perhaps, but we need to manage the rule and not the exception. The damage done by entitlement is as bad, and if not worse, as that done by exploitation. One could argue that entitlement is exploitation of a class of people by the government.

    1. Yes, and I think people need to be aware of that. For starters, I think the government should say, here’s a detailed budget showing exactly how you can afford all you need on minimum wage. That won’t guarantee everyone chooses to spend their money that way, but then at least we’ll have some proof that the minimum wage really is a living wage.

      Beyond that, I think some parents need to toughen up and kick out their adult children who are making well above a minimum wage. Help them make a budget, get their first apartment and then move them out. Let them earn the base salary and grow into those higher salaries that allow them to have manicures and HBO.

  4. Such a complicated issue! Thanks for blogging about this. Years ago, I read, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. It made quite an impression on me. I wonder what you would think of this woman going “undercover” in minimum wage jobs… As always, thank you for your thought-provoking posts! Best, Cate

    1. I actually own that book and have read it! It really is eyeopening. It’s not even that she couldn’t afford nice things. She couldn’t even afford reasonable living spaces half the time.

  5. O.K. Doll face ! Now you’re back on track. Competency vs Complacency. (The human condition for real) I still have a clarification for you on my “objectification” Post. Later today. Love to you and those who love you.

      1. Sorry for being so ambiguous. — I should just have said to each his own.
        New post on the CITIZENS of FASHION 7/24/14
        Please check it out. They state the following.
        Candice Huffine is the first “curvy” model to appear on the new Pirelli 2015 calendar signed by Steven Meisel. The iconic Pirelli Calendar since its creation celebrates the female forms. And with its new edition of 2015 it is definitely a celebration of female body in all shapes. From the slim silhouettes of Raquel Zimmermann, Carolyn Murphy, . . .. and so on. . . and so on! Now this from Wikipedia.
        Though the boundaries of societies and their cultures are indefinable and arbitrary, the subjectivity inherent in each one is palatable and can be recognized as distinct from others. Subjectivity is in part a particular experience or organization of reality, which includes how one views and interacts with humanity, objects, consciousness, and nature, so the difference between different cultures brings about an alternate experience of existence that forms life in a different manner. A common effect on an individual of this disjunction between subjectivities is culture shock, where the subjectivity of the other culture is considered alien and possibly incomprehensible or even hostile.. . . P.S.I meant no disrespect by refering to you as ‘Doll Face’
        .

        1. Assuming this is your clarification on my objectification post. I especially like the line “Subjectivity is in part a particular experience or organization of reality.” And no, I did not feel disrespected when you said Doll Face. I suppose I didn’t hear you say it, but the way you typed it did not feel offensive. I don’t know why I feel the need to clarify why I didn’t take offense, but there it is. ^_^

          1. You brought the first smile of my day to me. O.K turn over any card.” True beauty needs no clarification of itself. Besides, you have stumbled onto the secret of life.: Questions, questions,questions. This is where our connection to the cosmos resides. Turn over another card.-” Intuition- ‘COMES’- to us when we are stumped, If answers do not come to us after a reasonably short period of intellectualizing, it will come/dawn on you before that wisdom becomes necessary in life.” One more card “You’re a seeker, Never stop. Trust your feelings as well as your intellect. Ambition and success stops at the level of our incompetence” Love to you and all who love you and yours.

  6. In my opinion a minimum wage should be enough to effort at least a minimum living space per person (at least enough space for a bed, storing personal items, and a small chair/table combo), a minimum amount of clothing per year (depending on climate and job), and a minimum of consumable goods like enough food to meet all basic nutrional needs, basic toiletries, needed medication, writing material; water, electricity; and depending on the situation the use of either bike, car, or public transportation should be included as well, just like at least basic internet access and one phone per family.
    Smartphones, the latest fashion, manicures, soda, going to Starbucks, and all these things are luxury in my eyes. I’m not sure about make-up – I don’t think it’s a neccessity (and a stupid invention), but I guess that in some jobs women are required to look their best, and if no make-up meant losing their jobs, getting less tips, or whatever, then it wouldn’t be a luxury.
    Internet access is a kind of luxury as well, but in our western world it’s hard for most people to get by without it. I agree that at least for those still in education it’s a basic need these days.
    How to make sure they buy the “right” things? I don’t know, but for a start I suggest giving them enough money to afford healthy food instead of cheap but not very nutritious junk food (a real problem over here), and educating the public about how to prepare healthy food, say no to cheap things that will need replacement soon, and think of a way to stop bullying so people will feel comfortable even if they don’t have the latest gadgets or shiny new shoes.

    1. I’m not convinced the issue with healthy food is affordability as much as it is accessibility. I’m not sure how to fix that, but when the closest grocery store with a produce section is far away, it doesn’t matter how much it cost. It’s cheaper to buy stuff at a 7-Eleven then go through that trip.

      Beyond that, I think it’s an opportunity and education issue. Having an actual living wage gives people to opportunity to support themselves and their family with the basics. Having some form of education on budgeting available provides them with the education to know how to spend their money wisely.

  7. I support a livable wage but this proposed $15 minimum wage is ridiculous and really upsets me. I understand how those people working a minimum wage job feel. I’ve been there, I’ve been extremely poor working pay check to pay check and not being able to pay my student loans but I think $15/hr is way too much. And honestly it’s only a few dollars an hour less than what I make. In the end they would be making $4,000 less than me a year which what kind of message is that sending? I went to school, I got my bachelor’s degree, I worked hard to get all that and land the job I have which uses my degree. Is that not saying, well you’re degree doesn’t matter, the work you’ve done doesn’t matter? My coworker even has said that if that’s the case and that becomes the new minimum wage, why wouldn’t he just quit his job and go flip burgers? could this deter future generations from going to school to get a degree since hey, they make that much, why tack on student debt when you don’t have to? Having been extremely poor, I get it but I didn’t want to stay that way, I worked my way out of it and got the job I have now which I am more than happy to have and work. I like you’re idea of livable wage and the minimum being determined by the cost of living in the area. obviously if you lived in a place like NYC, $15/hr won’t cut it but a place like idk, some boonies in the south, $15/hr is way too much. i think the government coming up with a reasonable minimum (like maybe $9-10/hr) and then local or state governments from there can change the minimum based on the cost of living would be a better idea than raising the minimum to an unreasonable amount.

    1. Over here the minimum hourly rate is banded according to age and situation by UK government regulation. It seems the expectations in the UK are way below the Us. Check the government minimum wage pages on UK.gov 😮

      1. That seems tedious. Is the government choosing minimum wage on a case by case basis? I don’t understand how that works. Would an employer hiring a minimum wage worker even know what they would be expected to pay a person before hiring them?

    2. I agree that $15 an hour is way too much, especially when I know full well there are areas of the country where a person can live comfortably on $10 an hour. I think a livable or minimum wage should be just enough for a person working full time to have all their basic needs met. If they want more than that, they’ll have to work for it like everyone else.

      The way I see it, all these food service workers and other minimum wage workers are this time period’s factory workers. Like factory workers back in the day, they should be able to make enough to survive. Those who have the opportunity and take advantage of the opportunity to get higher education will, or should, always have higher paying jobs. That’s at least half the reason to seek higher education in the first place. I don’t think a job that does not require a degree should pay the same as a job that does require a degree. I mean, we’re talking about livable wage here. At the very least, someone who got an education will need a higher salary to pay for their student loans. Someone without student loans won’t need that.

  8. I support a living wage, although I have no idea what it should be. When I first started working back in the UK there was no minimum wage and I was paid a pittance. I worked 2 jobs to be able to not live at home. If I had an ounce of sense back then I would have been fine, broke and tired, but fine. As it was debt was easy to come by and I found my irresponsible self stuck working up to 80 hours a week and stuck in a career I didn’t choose. On the bright side it all worked out well, now I work less, earn more and am living the American dream ( still in the same career)

    1. Interesting. Do you think you would have made different decisions if budgeting information was available to you? Or was that information available and you just chose otherwise?

      1. I think a lot of my decisions were made as a response to how screwed up I was inside.

        I think that if I had had some real guidance it would have been very different. Then again if I had some real guidance I would have done better at school and got a real education too.

        I recall my Dad offering financial advice, once, on book keeping, practical but poorly presented. Our relationship was so poor at the time that I basically just did the opposite.

  9. I work 2 jobs, and one of them is full time but at a low wage. The other is part time at a lower wage. I received an email arguing we should raise the minimum wage to a point where I would get a raise, but then I would live at the new minimum. Doing that, I counter-argued, would only raise the cost of living, inflate the currency to the point where the new minimum is the new below-poverty standard, and I would be the new lower class dropped from lower low middle class because I would now begin earning minimum wage. My company would not raise my wage to compensate for the new low standard, they would just leave me at what they would call “a raise.” Raising minimum wage” doesn’t help. It robs people who have progressed above that wage, raises the cost of living, and hurts anyone who is between the old and new minimum wage by robbing them (and me) of any progress toward escaping poverty. I live at the bare minimum for me and my family and it’s hard. Raising the minimum wage? I might as well stop working, quit trying to improve our situation, and go on welfare, foodstamps and government housing.

    1. You are exactly right, which is why I wanted to discuss this issue. Honestly, the post got too long because there’s so much more to say. It’s such a complex issue. Arbitrarily raising the minimum wage will do squat and may even, as you point out, cause harm.

      I remember my high school job, where I was make 25 cents over the minimum wage. I was super proud that I had a job like that. Then, they raised the minimum wage. My employer did not choose to then raise be 25 cents above that wage. I was just a teenager living at home, but I still felt the effect. I was proud of the little bit more I could afford and then suddenly I wasn’t anymore.

      That said, I am not against raising the minimum wage if it comes as part of a plan complex enough to address all facets of the issue, including inflation. They need to prove that inflation won’t be an issue and explain exactly what they intend a person to afford on a minimum wage salary.

  10. I strongly support a living wage.

    No one should be working full-time and be in poverty.

    It also helps everyone.

    Even the Wall Street Journal has posted articles talking about how the rising gap between rich and poor will lead to political and business instability.

    When people don’t have enough money, they don’t spend, and then businesses lose sales and profits. At the same time, we taxpayers are subsidizing wealthy families like Walmart. Because Walmart doesn’t pay a living wage, they hand new employees foodstamp applications. Meanwhile, the 100 richest families in the world have more money than half the planet. The rich families don’t need that $. They can’t spend that $. The US was in the best economic situation when living wages were supported through things like the minimum wage, support for unions, and not off shoring and outsourcing jobs. It’s the best route to economic expansion and declining unemployment. Here’s why:

    When the poor have extra money they buy more clothes, food, fix appliances… The people who are paid then hire extra people to meet the increased demand, those people spend more money on clothes, food, appliances, movies, restaurants… And more people must be hired to meet the increased demand. Those people spend more money on clothes, food, movies, restaurants, vacations… And more people must be higher to meet the increased demand.

    The economy spirals upward.

    How much? I can’t give you an exact number, but it should be enough that a person can live in a decent home and have decent food and pay the bills. How much that is will vary from place to place. but there should be some base rate, and then increased in some areas. It may be less expensive to live in Chicago than Silicon Valley, for instance.

    San Francisco raised their minimum-wage to one of the highest in the country (which makes sense since they have one of the highest costs of living in the country), and their economy improved so that it is above average. It works for everyone.

    Hmmm, maybe I’ll write about this on my blog and link back to you for posing the question.

    1. This reminds me of what I heard on NPR this morning on my way to work. They were talking about the current economy, starting with a housing boom way back before the recession. They were encouraging everyone to buy buy buy, and by that they meant borrow borrow borrow. Then the recession hit and a lot of those people with mortgages fell into debt over their heads. Now the economy is bouncing back, but consumer spending is not. It’s because people are more concerned about paying off their debts then purchasing new things. So, take someone who is in poverty and probably in lots of debt. Raise their wages suddenly and most are not going to buy anything right away. They’re going to work off their debt first. While we wait for those people to pay off their debt and start consuming more, what will happen to the economy then.

      I do honestly support a living wage because of all the reasons you said. No one working a full time job should be living in poverty and/or off government assistance. That’s just absurd. However, I think it’s unwise to just pick a number and raise the minimum wage. The government needs to consider all the different aspects that will be affected by raising the minimum wage and take action to ensure inflation doesn’t destroy the whole plan.

      1. People on rising to minimum wage will immediately spend their money. Because they have to. The people you’re talking about are more middle-class people who don’t have to and have to luxury of being able to try to pay down debt.

        Also, the right wing constantly talks about inflation fears but we are nowhere near facing that problem. Economics Nobel Lorette, Paul Krugman, talks about how the right wing is constantly flaming fears of inflation. Yet they have never been right.

        See this article for instance: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/18/opinion/paul-krugman-addicted-to-inflation.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

        Or this: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/20/opinion/20krugman.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A7%22%7D

        And I trust Paul Krugman more than those on the right since his predictions always seem to come true, Whereas theirs don’t. They tend to be blinded by right-wing ideology.

  11. Ok TK, I need to follow your lead and cut expenses. I don’t watch TV, so maybe when my youngest goes to college next month, I’ll cut cable expenses. And get back into the habit of bringing lunch. I haven’t given much thought to what the living wage should be, but this is motivation to consider how/why I spend And how I can be more economical.

    1. I definitely indulge, though. I like my video games and my books. I have Netflix. I pay more for internet to get 50mps speeds, and the only way I could get those speeds was in a packages with cable, so I have cable. I just choose to live frugally because I want to do lots of traveling. That’s where everything else goes. It’s all about priorities.

  12. Over where I am in the UK, inflation is rising faster than wages, which means it will be more of a squeeze in terms of keeping your finances in check, don’t know if the US is in a similar situation. I think in the UK, the minimum wage should increase to about £8.50 per hour to keep inline. Luckily that I get paid well in my job, I have been saving up money which would lead to a new car and a deposit on a house.

    1. I think people fear inflation will become a problem if we increase the minimum wage. Outside of that argument, I don’t know that I’ve heard any worries about inflation. I do think that’s a worthy concern, though. There needs to be more thought put into raising the minimum wage. Instead of just picking a number, they need to think about what they do so they don’t do more harm than good.

  13. In 1968 minimum wage was raised from $1.40 to $1.60. IF it had kept pace with overall income growth in the American economy, it would now be around $21.16. Unfortunately, the only reason we can’t have it is the greed of those at the top.

    I support a living wage, and I think that it should be determined, as stated above, accounting for the growth in the American economy. Unfortunately, it is still legal to bank offshore and own sweat shops in China. Don’t you love rich guys who lie to uneducated voters to get elected into seats of power where they can siphon money from our economy and hoard it where it can’t be taxed or redistributed?

    I have supported myself on minimum wage, and all I have to say is if Momofuku Ando hadn’t created Ramen I truly believe that every college student would starve to death.

    1. Ah ramen. I was rushing this morning and talking with Acer support this evening, so I had ramen for both breakfast and dinner. I need to make sure to be healthy tomorrow….

      I don’t think you’ll get anyone to agree to a 21.16 minimum wage. What is that in terms of salary? That sounds like a ton of money. No, I don’t agree with that, but I do agree with a living wage… I just think we need to define what that means.

  14. We have a legal minimum wage here. Depending on age. Not location or anything else, just age.

    It’s $16.87 an hour. It recently went up by 3%.

    When I just started working at age 16 and I was still in high school, it was about $14. So in about 20 years it’s gone up by $2.

    However that minimum wage was more than enough to keep a roof over your head and some food on the table. Some days you missed out on the food so you have enough money to get to work again. Other days you were ok because you’d forgo some other expense to scrape together some savings.

    I think a minimum wage is pretty important and I couldn’t image the uproar that would happen if the government tried to change it here. Cost of living is high, we pay a lot more for a meal here than you guys do, about double to be exact. Even in McDonalds from what I hear, I don’t really know because I refuse to eat there.

    I think it’s an important conversation to be having and discussing.

    1. I wonder if everything cost so much because your minimum wage is so high. That’s not an argument against a living wage, but it’s important to consider. What both sides of the argument forget is that no living wage is catastrophe and raising the minimum wage without a concrete plan and detailed idea of how it will effect the economy is also catastrophe.

      If minimum wage is increased, we need to figure out what will be done to watch out for a prevent inflation.

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