Picture a minimum-wage worker. What do you see? My worker is a woman, a girl really. Her hair is in a ponytail underneath a red visor, and she’s working a fast food job after high school to pay for her car insurance, the occasional brand-name pair of jeans, and Saturday night movies with friends. I probably have this view of minimum-wage workers because they reflect my own experience as a minimum-wage worker, to a point. These low-paying, zero-benefit (unless getting even cheaper fast food during a shift can be considered a benefit) jobs are how I slowly made my way through high school and college, starting with my first job at Orange Julius making $4.75 an hour in 1994 (the federal wage was $4.25, but Oregon has always been a little ahead of the curve). By the time I graduated college in 2002, I was making $8.25 an hour at a hotel in Eugene and the federal minimum wage had risen to $5.15 per hour. The job was not always my only source of income: in high school, I was subsidized by my parents, and then by student loans and other financial aid during college. It’s a solidly middle-class picture of minimum-wage work, because I was raised solidly middle class.
A lot of folks like me think of minimum wage work as temporary—a rite of passage for young adults to endure until they graduate college and get a “real job.” There’s another layer to my story, though. In the eight years from my first minimum wage job to my last, I went to four schools, lived in five states, got married and divorced, dropped out of school to pay family bills, and waged an ongoing battle with depression and anxiety. I also incurred a lot of credit card debt.
As I began to research this article, I was flabbergasted as I read more about the realities for today’s low-wage workers, even though my own experience didn’t reflect the minimum-wage-worker archetype that was so deeply embedded in me. Here’s what I know now:
- Nearly 55% of people paid at or below minimum wage are aged 25 or over, and nearly 70% of minimum-wage workers work 35 or more hours per week.
- A minimum wage increase would have the greatest impact on women and people of color. 4.5 million single parents would benefit.
- More than 11 million children have parents who would receive a pay raise if the minimum wage were increased. That’s 11 million more kids whose parents would be a little less worried about making ends meet. Minimum wage workers are sometimes teenagers, but, by the millions, they are also parents, spouses, and caretakers. And unless you work to develop a real and lasting relationship, your favorite barista or the guy at the drive-through probably won’t tell you how hard things are at home.
- Nowhere in the United States can someone working full-time earning the federal minimum wage rent a 2-bedroom apartment at fair market rent without spending more than 30% of their income on housing.
- If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with inflation, it would now be $10.67 an hour. But if the federal minimum wage had kept pace with overall economic growth in the US since the 1960s, it would be $21.16 an hour, or $44,012.80 a year.
- Tipped workers (not just waitresses, but hotel workers, coffee slingers, etc.) are paid a federal minimum of just $2.13, forcing them not only to perform uncompensated emotional labor, but also to rely on the mood of their patrons, and not the quality of their work, to make ends meet. This wage hasn’t increased since 1991, when a gallon of gas cost about $1.14.
Margot Dorfman, CEO of the US Women’s Chamber of Commerce, points out that: “We all lose when American workers are underpaid … When businesses don’t pay a living wage all society pays. We pay through poverty and needless disease, disability, and death from inadequate healthcare. We pay as women struggle to put food on the table. We pay as businesses and communities suffer economic decline.” A host of business leaders and researchers have pointed out that raising the minimum wage makes good economic sense. And in addition to raising the quality of life for millions of families and children, raising the federal minimum wage would also help close the massive gender gap in pay.
An increase in minimum wage isn’t a panacea, but the bottom line is that people who work a full day, a full week, full time should earn a living wage, they should earn enough to afford safe housing, healthy food, and quality health care. The CEO of Walmart earns about $11,000 an hour. The CEO of Yum! Brands (owner of KFC) earns less than his “peer group” at just $6,200 per hour, while the CEO of McDonald’s earned around $7,400 an hour in 2016. Contrast this with the early church whose members “had all things in common…and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44).
Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate that would bring the federal minimum wage closer to inflation-adjusted levels and increase wages for tipped workers. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. Here’s the House version, and here’s the Senate’s. Whether or not you support this particular bill, I hope you’ll take a moment to call your congressional representatives to let them know that, as a follower of Jesus, you want every person to have the opportunity to earn a living wage.
Sarah Withrow King is the Deputy Director of Christians for Social Action, the co-director of CreatureKind, and the author of two books, Animals Are Not Ours (No Really, They’re Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology (Wipf & Stock) and Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan).