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Life at America's bottom wage

The House is to vote Wednesday on a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

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In the end, the law may exert only a modest influence on the arc of Oklahoma's economy, experts say. (The income gains and job setbacks would be greater if the hike, say, doubled the wage instead of boosting it by the proposed 40 percent.)

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Yet the proposed raise would have a big effect on the households that would be directly affected.

The legislation calls for the wage floor to rise in three steps, reaching $7.25 after two years.

A pay jump from $6 to $7.25 an hour would put 21 percent more money in each paycheck for Hosier. "That would help a lot," he says.

A 'soldier' in Salvation Army

A sturdy, soft-spoken man born in Arkansas, Hosier has spent about 15 years in this unassuming city of 39,000. He's worked as a mechanic on lawnmowers and other small motors. And for six years, he's been a "soldier" – a worker – at the Salvation Army. He rides a big truck, loading and unloading furniture, toys, boxes of clothing, and other items that county residents donate for sale in the store.

It's work that he believes in, but he also works there because the people – including the manager known as "Major" – believe in him.

"It's the people in Salvation Army who help you out," John says.

And he has needed help. His life story, as he recounts it, includes physical abuse from his father as a boy, various forms of drug abuse ("I did it all") and a prison term. And he struggles now with illiteracy.

As he sought a new life, he credits God and Tina with helping him forward. The church here has also been a haven of support.

The gathering on this night is not for formal worship but for a mix of activities. Mrs. Hosier settles in for some games of Bingo. As John heads to a vending machine and treats the family to drinks, a friend hands Tina a little gift. It's a typical-looking mug, but it makes her smile when it turns out to be a music box, too.

Meanwhile, Donald has joined some older children throwing a football in the parking lot. Other youngsters are dressed as angels, rehearsing a play to be performed on Sunday.

The Salvation Army is the core of this family's world. They don't have a car, but live within walking distance of both the church and the store where John works.

The store is a source not only of a paycheck, but also of used goods available at deep discounts.

The family also gets substantial government aid, for everything from clothing to food and healthcare. But paying their bills is a stretch, the Hosiers say.

Rent is $400 a month for their modest, yellow-sided home. They've lived there just a few months, so they're still figuring out how much to budget for utilities. And medical costs add up each month.

Donald takes medicines to cope with hyperactivity, and Hosier lists a range of ailments of his own, from asthma to an ulcer.

The state's Medicaid program covers many of these health costs, but the medications all require small monthly copayments that add up, John says.

"It's hard on a small income," he says. "You've got to get out and hustle and bustle to make a living."

When they need to go on an errand, the Hosiers rely on a Volunteers of America van, or ride with friends and relatives.

Life without a car

Mrs. Hosier says they'd like to get a car of their own, but that remains a far-off goal.

Their discretionary spending, for now, is on smaller items: some music CDs and for Donald on his birthday a toy truck and Spiderman underwear.

They like life in this quiet city that has long been a gateway for east-west and north-south commerce. Riverboats, railroads, and semitrailer trucks have successively rolled through this town. The historic brick downtown has given way to Wal-Mart on the edge of town as the new trading post for commerce.

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