Life at America's bottom wage
The House is to vote Wednesday on a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
It's the kind of December evening when the Hosier family might want to stay home.Skip to next paragraph
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At work all day, John Hosier has been resting on the living-room couch. Tina, his wife, has had her hands full taking care of their two young children. Yet, here they are, rolling 18-month-old Rose in a stroller with 5-year-old Donald tagging along, on a half-mile walk to the Salvation Army Church in Muskogee, Okla.
It's not just a place of worship and fellowship. The Salvation Army's affiliated store offers discounted goods and employs Mr. Hosier full time. The $6-an-hour job is the family's sole paycheck, which amounts to barely $200 a week. Even with government aid, such as food stamps, the family is on poverty's doorstep. "If it wasn't for the Salvation Army, I don't know where I'd be," Hosier says.
Wednesday, Congress formally begins considering helping families like the Hosiers by raising the nation's minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, up from the $5.15 rate that has held steady since 1997.
By one estimate, the expected hike would directly affect the paychecks of 6.6 million low-wage workers like John Hosier. Another 8 million workers have wages that, while a bit too high to be forced upward by the law, stand to gain from an upward ripple effect when the wage floor is adjusted.
A glimpse into the lives of people who live at bottom-rung pay rates illustrates why, to supporters of the change, the minimum wage is long overdue for a raise. But it also reveals that such a boost isn't a one-step solution for the challenges that face America's poorest workers.
In fact, many families are poor today even though they earn far above $7.25 an hour.
"Until you're making $10 or $12 an hour, if you're [a single-income household] with dependents, you're going to have a really tough time making ends meet without public assistance," says David Blatt, a poverty expert at the Community Action Project of Tulsa County, about 40 miles from Muskogee in the state's northeastern section.
Oklahoma doesn't have high living costs, compared with some other states. But to cover the basic needs of a family of four here typically requires an income of more than $33,000, according to an online budget calculator created by the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
At $5.15 an hour, it would take three full-time jobs for a family to earn that much.
Many minimum-wage workers, it's true, don't have children. Often they are young people on their first job.
But the Hosier family is not unusual. Of the workers who stand to reap higher pay if Congress raises the wage floor, the vast majority are adults, most work full-time, and about 1 in 4 have dependent children, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Moreover, they are often the sole breadwinner in the household. Of families with children, nearly half of those who would be affected by a minimum-wage hike get all their earned income from one low-wage worker.
The issue is important politically. Democrats, now in control of Congress, have made raising the minimum wage a top priority in their 100-hour legislative push for change. It would also have its most significant economic effect – positive and negative – in the South and Great Plains where states generally haven't set their own higher minimum wage.
Few states will see a greater impact than Oklahoma. As of last year, the Sooner State led the nation in the share of hourly workers (4 percent) who earn no more than $5.15 per hour.
That means many families such as the Hosiers will see a boost in pay if the law changes. But it means that negative ripple effects will also be magnified, as businesses confront a big jump in labor costs. Many employers will have to raise prices, and some are likely to hire fewer people as a result.