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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.

(Page 3 of 3)

The city was also the end point of the Trail of Tears, by which the Cherokee and Creek nations were forcibly resettled in the 1830s and '40s. In 1969, country legend Merle Haggard immortalized it a different way when he sang "I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee."

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Oklahoma, like the rest of the states, got its first taste of a federally mandated minimum wage in 1938, during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. It was 25 cents at the time – worth about $3.57 in today's dollars – and was adjusted upward, at infrequent intervals, in an effort to keep pace with rising costs of living.

The current level of $5.15 was reached in 1997, and Congress has never waited so long to raise it.

As a result, the purchasing power of a minimum-wage paycheck is now at its lowest point in half a century.

Also earning the minimum: teenagers

The people who earn minimum, or close to it, are as different as John Hosier and Megan Sistanich.

She also lives in Muskogee but is still in high school. She's earning $5.15 an hour at a downtown cafe called Breadworks. She aims to go to a nearby college and become a pharmacist, which almost certainly would mean much better pay in a few years.

Serving behind the counter here, taking orders for sandwiches and baked goods, is her first job. She's using the money for a cellphone and a coming band trip to Texas.

Drawing on government data on the American workforce, labor economists highlight several patterns in the low-wage workforce:

•Most workers don't work the minimum wage for very long. Of workers who are 10 years into their careers, only about 13 percent have spent half or more of their career earning within $1.50 of the minimum wage, according to a 2001 study.

•Minimum-wage workers are concentrated in low-skill service-sector occupations, including food service, retail, and motel housekeeping. Among Labor Department occupations, "leisure/ hospitality" leads the pack with 14.3 percent of workers earning $5.15 or less per hour. (Workers in some occupations such as food service can earn less than $5.15 if they earn enough tips to equal the minimum.) By contrast, just 0.4 percent of manufacturing workers earn minimum wage.

•Of the 6.6 million workers who would be directly affected by the proposed minimum-wage hike to $7.25 an hour, 61 percent are female, 29 percent are age 16 to 19, 21 percent are Hispanic, 16 percent are black, and 9 percent are single parents, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Those numbers are all higher than the share of those groups in the total workforce. By contrast, 16 percent of those affected will be married parents – many fewer than the 29 percent of all workers who are in that group.

•Many low-wage workers also face a high level of job insecurity. People with low skills are more likely to be unemployed, according to government data. And many low-wage workers have only part-time jobs. Of those directly affected by the proposed wage hike, 21 percent work fewer than 20 hours per week, whereas just 5 percent of the overall workforce is in that category. In addition to low skills, barriers to employment can include substance abuse or mental illness and other disabilities.

Low wages only a part of the problem

"There are two problems the poor have. One is low wages.... The other is not enough work hours, consistently, over time," says Timothy Bartik, an economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Here in Oklahoma, Hosier is grateful for full-time work. He figures that, for now, none of the other jobs available to him would be better paying.

And he likes working for an organization that's in the business of helping others, just as he has been helped by those around him.

"If I had a dollar in my pocket and someone asked me for 50 cents, I would give them that dollar," he adds. "The would make me feel good."