How I failed to live on the minimum wage

Chicago Sun-Times:

This past week my husband and I took the Live the Wage challenge in solidarity with hard-working families who are trying to make ends meet on a minimum wage salary. Our allotment was $77 each for the week to cover all food, transportation and other expenses excluding housing, insurance, and support for dependent children (which I don’t have). It didn’t take us long to realize that $7.25 an hour is not enough to live on. We didn’t quite make it.

To anyone who thinks this challenge is just a gimmick, I say “Try it.”

As someone who has lived at this level his entire life, I can vouch for the fact that it ain’t easy.

  • DanielSw

    Poverty doesn’t have to be the trap that so many believe it to be. And raising the minumum wage certainly isn’t a solution, as it will only further penalize those who ARE productive.

    The key is education—NOT the obviously dysfunctional “educational system” which has been foisted on the society for far too long, but real education: training in the actual practicalities of everyday life and livingness. It should start in the home, but, lacking that, it should be taught in schools by caring instructors following comprehensive curricula.

    The end product should be an indivudual who has been properly and fully oriented to the society of which he/she is a part, and who has been adequately trained to the point that the individual “knows how to do stuff”—not only how but also why in the context of what responsibilities the individual has to contribute to the society.

    With a proper education, there should be an accompanying love of and desire to keep on learning thoughout one’s life. Learning things and actions large and small, so that one can weather the storms of inevitable change.

    I started my second career at 37 by getting an Apple Macintosh computer and Adobe Illustrator in 1987. I taught myself the computer and the software by simply reading the manuals, and by practicing with the tools to the point that I could confidently offer my professional services to local companies at a fairly decent beginning hourly rate of $20.

    There are, of course, many skills beyond hardware and software that go into making a successful freelance career. But these are or should be rather common knowledge, all of which can and should be taught in school and a young age.

    “Minumum wage” is simply bureaucratic crap and essentially thinly veiled socialism or communism which speak in the name of help and compassion to the disadvantaged, but the intention of which is merely to enslave.

    • “raising the minumum wage certainly isn’t a solution, as it will only further penalize those who ARE productive.”

      Are you saying the poor aren’t productive?

      • the_other_stevejobs


        That doesn’t mean they are not of value – but it does mean what work they do is not.

        By definition, what they produce is of little to no value or takes no unique talent, or could be replaced by someone or something else without any issue.

        Anyone can be shown how to sweep a floor, but not everyone can write a popular blog like Daring Fireball or Stratechery or shoot a basketball like Jordan which gets people to buy tickets or design a rocket engine.

        • I guess you only buy things from where rich people work then.

        • Terry Maraccini

          Safety nets are not being used as hammocks, asshole.

          • Michael

            Lived in a low-income building when I was a low-income student supporting myself through after hours work. Most of the residents were on welfare, had multiple kids before the shelf 20 and were smoking pot all the time.

            1 or 2 were on disability and I’m fine with my tax dollars for that. For the rest, I’m not. That is not because I believe in aynrand, it’s because I believe that life should not be comfortable if you have the means to do so something about it, even if it means working minimum wage over collecting welfare.

            However overall these discussions tend to be very divisive. The real problems are corporations collections billions in welfare and regulatory capture, middle class and rich people getting government handouts (low interest rates, old age security etc…) when they have no need of a handout. This is a system hurting younger people and a system that cannot continue as is.

          • There’s lots of room for healthy debate. There’s zero tolerance for name calling. There’s simply no need for it.

        • what absolute rubbish. these things of value, like iphones and cars, employ plenty of low-wage workers….or do you think Tim Cooks vacuums his own office?

          somebody has to do the low-end work, and thats just a fact. that it can be done by anyone is why it pays little — not because it isnt a necessary job to be done.

      • Terry Maraccini

        Mr. King, study after study points to raising the minimum wage as a benefit to those who get those raises with no loss in productivity or profit to those who control wages.

      • Jwcorey

        I know more poor people who spent the summer working 7 days a week from 9 to 12 hours apiece than rich people… many of whom spent 50% of the summer days at cottages and holiday get-away spots.

        I’m not a big handout-lover, but the productivity argument just flies in the face of obvious fact.

      • DanielSw

        I’m saying they aren’t productive ENOUGH. Isn’t that glaringly obvious?

        • No, it’s not. As you didn’t say it, how could I have assumed that’s what you meant?

        • invinciblegod

          And so what? So instead of hiring 2 minimum wage workers at mcdonalds, they hire a new more productive one (that everyone will become if the education system works per your suggestion, and becomes the baseline) also at minimum wage. Now we have a poor person and a homeless person.

    • “Minumum wage” is simply bureaucratic crap”

      Not for those of us forced to live off of it.

      “the intention of which is merely to enslave.”

      Sorry but that makes no sense. How is a guaranteed wage “enslaving”? Not sure if you’re aware but slaves don’t get paid…

      • Larry Davis

        Why are you forced to live off it? You’ve said you’ve been at that level your entire life, I’m just wondering why.

      • the_other_stevejobs

        who’s forcing you to live off minimum wage?

        As far as slavery – salves got fed, and not much else… which is about all you can do if you live off minimum wages. So i’m not sure how its different.

        Your insistence that my hard work be taken from me at the barrel of a government gun to pay for your inability to make a living at writing on this website seems to be more forcing than you being forced to make minimum wage.

        • “to pay for your inability to make a living at writing on this website”

          LMAO I most certainly do NOT make a living writing on this site or any other. Hell, I barely make beer money here. 🙂

      • George

        If everyone was entitled to more out or envy of those with more than them, there would be nothing at all. Capitalism is the reason why a minimum wage allows you to survive comfortably, and yes, I say comfortably because modern life IS comfortable compared to earlier decades or poor countries today. Have you ever been to a capital-poor country? Frankly the emotions coming out the strongest here are envy or jealously on your part.

      • DanielSw

        You’re taking my words out of context. Re-read my last paragraph. I said socialism and communism are enslaving. Sorry if you don’t grasp that, but it’s not my job to explain it to you any furthre.

        • Actually it is when you don’t write clearly.

          • DanielSw

            Actually, you’re making “The Loop” into something far different than what Jim originally created. I don’t like what you’re doing.

          • Please feel free to address your complaints directly to Jim – I can send you his email address if you’d like. He will punish me (or not) as he feels is appropriate. Have a nice day.

          • Moeskido

            Still awesome.

        • I said socialism and communism are enslaving

          And that makes you a kook.

    • Spoken like a truly out-of-touch and clueless person.

    • JohnK

      I tend to agree with DanielSw. Minimum wage x 40 hours/week was never intended to be a living wage, which is what the author of the article has defined it to be. The obvious part that the author ignores (because her experiment is hypothetical) is the work done to earn minimum wage, and that some jobs just aren’t sufficient to earn a living wage.

      It’s cliche, but the job of flipping burgers will never be enough to provide for a family, and it is not the responsibility of the employer or the government to try to change this.

      • Terry Maraccini

        Minimum wage was supposed to be the bottom wage, providing some semblance of societal participation while allowing for aspirational climbing of the soci0-economic ladder. In today’s world, the goal is to create jobs at or around the minimum wage to allow for no aspirational climbing./

        Capitalism is funny.

        We have a Sam’s Club. Average wage: $9.25/hr. 68% of workers are part time.

        We also have a Costco. You could argue that they operate on roughly the same business model, warehouse, big box etc.

        Yet, Costco’s average wage is 18.08/hr. More than 50% are full time. All are offered benefits.

        They both thrive. I wonder what Walmart intends to do with all those wage savings. Oh, yeah, I know…

        It’s also funny when it comes to insurance. It costs a company nothing to offer its employees health insurance. The company isn’t contributing. They’re acting as the collection agent for an insurance company. 401K? Same thing. They’re collection agents for investment banks.

        Western capitalism is all about winners and losers. That’s why we’re in the mess we’re in.

        • JohnK

          Excellent points. I have my own take on why Costco is held up as an example against Sam’s Club and WalMart, but I’d hate to bring religion into an already touchy subject!

    • franksspam

      This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve read on the internet today. Raising the minimum wage isn’t the complete solution but the only way you can argue that the minimum wage shouldn’t be raised is if you don’t believe in a minimum wage at all. What I mean by that is that the minimum wage simply has not kept up with inflation since it was created. If we decide as a society that there should be a minimum wage for a day’s work then that wage has to be based on economic principles and it has to be tied to inflation, otherwise it doesn’t make sense.

      And let’s be clear that raising it would impact not only those making the minimum wage but the ridiculous number of people that have received wage increase after increase and still are not making what we should raise it to. Corporations are notorious for putting percentage limits on raises. So, if you make $7.25 and got a 3% raise every year for the past 10 years you STILL would not make $10 per hour.

      Wages are stagnant in this country. There are tons of jobs that require a college degree and pay less than $30,000 per year. This is a crime.

    • not offering living wages just subsidizes the poor — the taxpayer picks up the difference in social program costs, like rent assistance.

      id rather the employer pay a livable wage.

      • Right. Add the fact that the corporations that benefit the most from low paid part time employees also benefit immensely from corporate welfare and keep the profits. So there is far less tax revenue for the social programs that bear the brunt of the results of massive corporate profits.

    • it will only further penalize those who ARE productive.

      This is bullshit and smacks of the trickle down garbage that has destroyed tax bases and ruined infrastructure for decades.

      “Minumum wage” is simply bureaucratic crap and essentially thinly veiled socialism or communism which speak in the name of help and compassion to the disadvantaged, but the intention of which is merely to enslave.

      Oh. You are a kook. I hadn’t realized that.

  • Moeskido

    No, it’s not easy. But at one time it helped to have benefited from a great public education system and a relatively humane government, back before those sorts of things were systematically kicked to the ground by people who’d privatize anything they could get a piece of while blaming the poor for not having inherited wealth or pulled themselves up by bootstraps they’d been denied access to.

    It also helped to have had some sort of safety net back then. I was six when my not-at-all-wealthy watchmaker father was permanently hospitalized, and my mother—in this country for barely more than a few years—had to figure out which skills to polish up before navigating a strange culture while looking for a day job. Neither of which she’d been prepared for after marrying and having a kid. We’d been relatively poor (but getting by), and now things had gotten worse.

    We got through it, thanks to her hard work and the fact that we had a few months of government assistance available to help us, if needed. Something she paid back for in spades, by the way. My mother’s generation also knew a little something about the value of a great public education—and I’m not talking about vocational-only training.

    Of course, back then (and later, up until a few years before I moved out on my own), a minimum wage was something you could actually live on if you were careful.

    That was before low-level salaries got frozen by MBAs who’d read too much Ayn Rand, before banks were allowed to gamble our savings on bad risks, before a hack actor convinced millions that “government is the problem,” and before the insane children of John Birch were given way more attention than they merited.

    • the_other_stevejobs

      my great grandparents in Russia knew government was the problem when they disagreed with the idea that the government should own and run their farm instead of them. At least my great grandmother survived to tell the tale. I didn’t need any American president to tell me government was the problem.

      • never happened in american history. what problem was reagan referring to?

  • Larry Davis

    I don’t think the challenge is a gimmick, but I think the premise is flawed. I’ve been working since I was 15 and only once received minimum wage. To do that I worked hard jobs people didn’t want to do like dig ditches. I think in most cases minimum wage is a choice.

    If simply raising the minimum wage would actually help in the long run it would have already occurred. That’s an easy fix if that’s all it takes.

    • franksspam

      You do not understand politics and corporate America at all.

      • Larry Davis

        Clearly. Because you know me.

        • franksspam

          I don’t have to know you for my statement to stand. You said, “If simply raising the minimum wage would actually help in the long run it would have already occurred. That’s an easy fix if that’s all it takes.”

          There is ridiculously strong political opposition to raising the minimum wage. There is nothing easy about it. A ton of lobbying money is spent opposing it and the Republican party opposes it for ideological reasons.

          So the fact that you said that it is an easy fix proves that you do not understand the process and the players.

          • Larry Davis

            I didn’t say the act of raising it was easy. I said if raising it would solve the problem then it would be an easy fix, as in, just raise the minimum wage and all these problems go away.

            They don’t. It’s far more complicated than that. Money isn’t the solution. Proper social programs and support, education, equal opportunities. Those things will help, but they aren’t easy.

          • franksspam

            Perhaps you should completely rewrite your post then. You said, “If simply raising the minimum wage would actually help in the long run it would have already occurred. That’s an easy fix if that’s all it takes.”

            Again, you said, “it would have already occurred.”

            Please explain this since I already explained how hard it would be for this to occur.

          • franksspam

            No you didn’t. You said, “If simply raising the minimum wage would actually help in the long run it would have already occurred.”

            That is not the same as what you just said, at all. Try again.

    • DarrenSaunders

      “Minimum wage is a choice”

      Are you fucking kidding me?

      You’ve graduated from university and you’ve got the bit between your teeth to get ahead following your passion. There are no jobs in the area in which you’re skilled, so you postpone looking for the job you want in favour of just earning enough to pay the rent. You’re working 50 hours a week just to cover the rent and your meagre bills. By the time you get home it’s time for bed, you’re too tired to spend time searching for a better job. Fast forward five years, you don’t have any experience in your chosen field, so no one will give you an interview in favour of the graduates that have managed to get lucky. You give up, what’s the point.

      Minimum wage isn’t a choice. No one chooses to be paid the absolute basic that an employer is legally obliged to pay.

      • Larry Davis

        At 15 I was earning more than minimum wage doing things like digging ditches and landscaping. It was hard work but it paid well. Minimum wage is absolutely a choice. Conversely, I had friends who worked at McDonalds but within 6 months were earning more than minimum wage because they were hard workers. Within a couple years they were shift managers while still in high school. One even became a store manager and paid for college while working full time.

        After I graduated from college I didn’t have a job, didn’t know what I wanted to do. Instead, I worked 3 jobs (one full time, two part time), none of which paid minimum wage, none of which required any sort of degree or formal training.

        Later I got a “real” job, but not in a career I enjoyed or went to school for. About 10 years after that I finally got into the industry and career I wanted.

        Sometimes we don’t get the jobs we want. That’s life. It’s a choice how you respond to that reality.

        • DarrenSaunders

          So, because you lucked out, everyone should aspire to be you. Nice.

          However, I reiterate my point; minimum wage is not a choice. No one chooses to be paid poorly. Give me a choice right now, and I’ll opt for a 300% pay rise, because I need the money. Fortunately, I caught a break after years of minimum wage jobs, but I sure as hell didn’t choose to have the piss taken out of me by employers who were raking in the profits at the expense of their workforce.

          • Larry Davis

            “I feel that luck is preparation meeting opportunity.”

            • Oprah Winfrey

            Nothing about what I did or said was lucking out. It was hard work. People choose jobs that pay poorly. I could have worked at a fast food place. I worked digging ditches because it paid more.

            I worked 3 jobs because I needed the money, not because I wanted to. And it certainly wasn’t the employers’ faults that they didn’t pay me 3x as much.

            You seem angry at the world. Why don’t you take control of what you can, stop complaining, and create your own luck? It really does work. Sometimes it takes longer than we want, but it works.

    • If simply raising the minimum wage would actually help in the long run it would have already occurred

      Except that vested corporate interests use l;lobbyists to fight attempts to have the minimum wage keep pace with inflation.

  • the_other_stevejobs

    20 years ago (and still today in Germany) – it was never considered an option for adults to work minimum wage all their life. Minimum wage was what you paid teenagers in the process of teaching them the value of hard work while they toiled at a fast food place or sweeping floors in a warehouse.

    Adults would work their way up the ladder – either at the fast food place or the warehouse or grocery store or factory to some level of management – or learn a trade, or go to college for a useful degree (not some useless bullshit degree like Latino studies)

    The idea that 30-50 year old people are cooking french fries and flipping burgers seems impossible to me in two ways:

    1. That an adult with a fully formed mind could do a job so utterly mindless as a minimum wage job day after day and year after year without going apeshit and killing everyone in the McDonalds.

    2. That the solution to the problem that people are clamoring for is to ask the people who are spying on you and feeling them up 80 year old grandmothers at the airport and running the post office to “save them”.

    Shawn – you’re a good writer – but holy shit, minimum wage? I don’t think Topolsky is making minimum wage – and Gruber sure as shit isn’t.

    Is it time to be honest with yourself and assessing your situation like an adult? That’t not a slam.

    My uncle has made an amazingly fulfilling career as a car mechanic… he does great work on not just simple things like changing brakes, but also does customization and resto-modding. In fact, his number one problem in life is the amount of shit the government gives him changing rules and regulations all the time, always costing him more (never less). I love being around my uncle and we have the best time at his shop – and i’m 42!

    Oh – and he never went to college.

    And i can’t do anything like my uncle. I’ve tried to learn how to repair cars and mod them, but its just not in me. I screw it up every time.

    So maybe, instead of crying for a government to save you, take a good hard look at what you could be good at that could get you out of minimum wage.

    That is, of course, if you’re not happy with how much you make. If you are, then there’s no much reason to complain.

    My boss keeps asking me if i want to be management, and i tell her every time “no”. I’m really content with what i make and what i do. In the process, i’ve leaving tens of thousands on the table every year in exchange for doing what i like doing and what i’m good doing.

    • Terry Maraccini

      And now only a small number of those economic steps you describe are available.

      Also, anecdotal stories about “this uncle” or “that aunt” only reinforces the notion that capitalism without supervision and guidance only reinforces the inability to be mobile.

      We have moved from the era of big government to the era of big corporations. And unlike big government, you have NO SAY in the functioning of the big corporation.

      And all the philosophical, Ayn rand, individualism stuff is all lies.

      Societies by and large are not upwardly mobile.

      • Moeskido


    • “Shawn – you’re a good writer…”

      Thanks. I disagree but thank you for saying it.

      “I don’t think Topolsky is making minimum wage – and Gruber sure as shit isn’t.”

      Not sure of the relevance of that.

      “Is it time to be honest with yourself and assessing your situation like an adult?”

      Believe me – I have. Often.

      “That’t not a slam.”

      not taken as one.

  • The White Tiger

    Oh Lord, these sorts of articles bring out the ugly side of the Disqus community.

    From what I’ve gathered, the debate can be entirely boiled down to “should the minimum wage be a ‘living wage’ if a person works for 40 hours a week?” A lot of people tend to debate this by going off of one answer or the other and then branching out into different tangents, causing a disconnect with those who fundamentally disagree with that initial conclusion. It’s a frustrating cycle to watch.

    • JohnK

      Nothing wrong with a little healthy debate, although you are right that the internet can bring out the ugliness in people. You can see where I fall based on my previous comment, so I won’t repeat myself. How would you answer your question?

  • Terry Maraccini

    We did a story about this last month:

    You cannot live on the minimum wage. You cannot live on the proposed raised minimum wage. And contrary to the comment below, the answer is not education about the practical realities of life. That doesn’t change your ability to get a job.

    In capitalism, most jobs are created by entities needing employees of all skill levels. The notion is that working in a society allows one to participate in the society. Yet, when all the jobs are replaced by jobs at the poverty level, it doesn’t matter what you know. You will be poor.

    We can scoff at the notion because our skill set is currently in demand. Not everyone can be an engineer or technocrat. Some don’t have the intellect or aptitude to do those things. Saying we need better education in math and science is only part of the issue.

  • T_Will

    It sounds like going through that exercise was a great way to show people how to live within their means.

  • Moeskido

    Here are some of the sillier implied arguments I’m seeing on this page:

    1. “I’ve never been poor, but I have plenty of privilege-colored opinions about what poverty is like. Now I’ll brag for a bit from my armchair about my personal success, conveniently omitting the advantages that helped make it possible.”

    2. “My folks lived under a corrupt government. Therefore all governments are bad. Even ones I’ve never lived under and that haven’t yet fully institutionalized greed as a way of life.”

    3. “I live in a place where all infrastructure is long-since paid for, but I don’t want to pay to maintain or improve it. Fuck taxes.”

    4. “I’m still employed for now, barring some sort of life-changing catastrophe, but my insecurity doesn’t extend to supporting a control on how little my next job might pay me for menial work.”

    5. “Poor people should just take a third or fourth or fifth or sixth job if they don’t have the skills or access to training to improve themselves. Who cares if they can’t support themselves on 60 hours a week. Just work harder for less money, especially for service work I don’t consider important but would hate to stop benefiting from.”

    6. “I’m either too young or too delusional to remember living during a time when our government actually spent more of our taxes directly on the people who pay them. Nor do I acknowledge that there was ever a time when a decent minimum wage could actually support life without breaking our national economy. Never happened. Angry rich conservatives on tv would have told me if it had.”

    7. “I’m perfectly comfortable with stereotyping and distrusting anyone who has less money than I do.”

  • DarrenSaunders

    Judging by these comments, it’s nice to see that north Americans can be just as judgmental about the poor as my fellow British. Seems that entirely lacking in empathy is a universal condition.

    • Amen.

    • Moeskido

      The infection is always present, waiting to be nurtured.

  • franksspam

    For those of you that are against raising the minimum wage, you simply look at the value of human life differently than the rest of us. Take all the jobs that pay minimum wage right now. Tell me which of those jobs we should just get rid of. Now let’s look at the jobs you decided we need to keep; because you like to eat out, or go to the movies, or buy things at local stores, or get an education so you can get a better job (yes, there are some minimum wage people working to keep the schools running too).

    Which person’s life is worth less than yours that they should spend a large portion of it serving you while making minimum wage? Which person is less human than you? That is really the question. A salary puts a value on the person that is doing it. If you think it is okay for someone to be paid minimum wage to serve you then you are not the kind of person I want to associate with.

    The idea that some keep throwing out, that people should be ditch-diggers or whatever completely ignores the fact that we need people to do the non-ditch-digging jobs too. If everyone were ditch-diggers then we would have way too many ditches and we would be walking around hungry (grocery store and restaurant employees aren’t paid well), naked (clothing store employees aren’t paid well), and without a lot of other things we would like to have to live comfortably.

    I agree that jobs that require higher qualifications and experience should pay more. However, I also think that the value of a human life requires that the minimum that we pay people should be much higher than it is right now. We have not kept up anywhere near the rate of inflation, so the minimum wage now does not have the same buying power it did 10, 20, 50 years ago. The minimum wage of $1.60 an hour in 1968 would be $10.86 today when adjusted for inflation. Instead, it is $7.25. And let’s not forget that during this same time, worker productivity has doubled.