Previously published on Yahoo! Contributor Network on Jan 6, 2011 and updated for 2014
For the record, I want to say how much I DESPISE hearing those words. I raised four children, mostly by myself, with little and sometimes no child support. No way could I have made it on the salary I was making.
If it weren't for the generosity of my parents and one of my sisters, my children and I would have been living in roach-infested apartments, eating only Ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese. What's really sad about what I just wrote is that many families do live in squalor or they don’t have a home at all, because they can't afford to live. How can we expect landlords to fix apartments when the rent doesn't even pay the mortgage?
I'm not defending slum landlords. I'm just pointing out the obvious - unless the government subsidizes an apartment, if tenants make minimum wage and the landlord wants to help out by offering low-income housing to people who can't afford anything better, something has to give. And sometimes that "something" is major, like a furnace or a refrigerator. Tenants who can't afford to live anywhere else, put up with the inconveniences, because they can't afford to move anywhere else.
My situation wasn't that bad, BECAUSE I had help. But my income was so insignificant, it barely made a dent into my bills.
And it wasn't that I wasn't working as hard as the next guy. In several places where I was employed, I was doing the work of three people. In one law firm for instance, when I left in tears because I just couldn't complete the work expected of one person, I later found out, because my sister took a job working for the same law firm, that they replaced me with three people.
At another job, I worked frantically to keep pace with the work, even while everybody kept asking, “Just exactly what does Theresa do?" So I devised a performance measurement process to discover just exactly how much work each person in my department was contributing to the overall workload. In addition to what the other employees had do to, I had an additional job that none of them had to perform. I showed the chart to my boss.
My output, on the one job alone - the one that other employees had to perform - was three times that of the average employee. PLUS I had my other job - at the same place - during the same work hours. As you might imagine, when I left, the other employees felt the extreme load of extra work. I mention those examples to prove a point – that people who live below the poverty level aren’t necessarily lazy.
However, my pay scale was nowhere near what I needed to succeed in raising my children. Though I made just above minimum wage at some of my jobs, here's why I couldn’t make ends meet at so many others:
The federal minimum wage in 2009 was $7.25. Figuring on the LOW side, rent for a single parent of two children might have been close to $600 a month, food for three was minimally $200 a month. Babysitting was about $400, renters insurance was probably $50 a month, car insurance an addition $50 a month, and when you factor in electricity, phone, gas, heat, and water, you would probably have spent an additional $200. If you wanted cable, that's at least another $100. Gas for your car might have been another $75 a month. But let's leave out the cable, because cable is really not a necessity, is it?
A $15,080 year minimum wage salary equals $1,257/mo. Let's not forget to take out Uncle Sam's portion (approximately $188.55), which leaves you with about $1067 a month. And with deductions, you are left with...
...nothing AND you owe an additional $508 - $4,710 LESS PER YEAR (for an Illinois single parent raising 2 kids) than an EMPLOYED individual requires just to meet basic necessities. And remember, the costs I listed were probably so much lower than what people with two children would have paid, that you might have to add far more loss to the equation.
In any event, I have to ask, HOW is having a job making $508 less per month than you need to survive BETTER than not having a job at all? What is the tenant supposed to tell her landlord - "Sorry, I can't pay the rent - EVER - but at least I have a job." Or how about the utility companies? What happens when her children grow out of their clothes and shoes? When you make $508 less per month than you need to survive, you can't even afford items from the Salvation Army.
The employed person could better herself by going to school, but how will she pay for daycare and transportation? Granted some government programs are in effect for SOME individuals. If you want to go into nursing, for instance, you are guaranteed to find help, but the professions for which the government is willing to pay are limited.
Let's take the problem further. Can employers afford to pay more than minimum wage to their employees? Probably not. As it is, most employees have had benefits taken away from them, wage freezes put into effect, perks taken away, and yet they still show up for work every day.
They cut down, cut out, and still they can't meet the demands of life that require them to feed their children, clothe their children, and transport their children to the grocery store.
So what is the answer? Without a job, people have to go on public assistance. With a job, people can't afford to pay their bills and end up on the streets. If you can't afford to pay the bills for your home or apartment, you can't afford to live in your home.
Again, I ask, what is the answer?
I have a suggestion. What if the government expanded its list of eligible classes to include those for professions other than the limited ones they offer? Not everybody wants to be a farmer or a nurse.
And I would like to offer another ray of hope - a government job. Nowhere else will you find pay scales that increase, benefits that are in most cases superior to anything you would find in the private sector, and more job security than you would find anywhere else. If you can get through the initial phases of poverty, find government assistance to get you through that phase, find people who will agree to take care of your children (you could take care of theirs in exchange), you can find something that will bring you out of your conditions and into something better. (By the way, the government's retirement benefits are amazing.)
Even if the job is not what you had planned on doing with your life, you can train for other positions while you work. Eventually you can live the life you wanted to live. It will be tough, but aren't your circumstances tough now?
AND I have another idea – one that absolutely would NOT work because too many government officials would put a stop to it – allow individuals to sell home made items from the trunks of their cars or in front of their homes. Have them get a permit. Monitor their sales. Crazy, right? But I have to ask why some people are allowed to put open guitar cases in front of them while they play and get donations for their talents, when those of us who write books, crochet, paint, make jewelry, or build book cases are not allowed to do the same thing?
Bottom line – is any job really better than no job? No. But planning and researching for a better way of life, and then implementing the strategies necessary for getting a better life is better than doing nothing.
By the way, if you’re against raising the minimum wage, I’d like to direct you to two sites listed below (notice how the minimum wage has not increased since 2009 (still $7.25 per hour), but the cost of living has risen nearly 8%. Think you can live on that? Take all your expenses and subtract them from the $1,067 I listed above. See how much you have left. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, “How would that work for you?”
Federal Minimum Wage Rates http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0774473.html
Cost of Living Calculator: https://www.aier.org/cost-living-calculator
USA Jobs http://www.usajobs.gov/