You Won’t Believe How Little $8.25 an Hour Buys


October 7, 2014

This post was originally published on Oxfam America’s First Person blog on Sept. 29.

Photo of Minimum Wage worker

Cleaning the movie theater is part of my daughter’s duties. But does her job actually pay enough to live on? Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam America

For my hard-working family and friends who earn just above the U.S. minimum wage, a paycheck doesn’t go very far.

My daughter struck it lucky when she landed a job for $8.25 an hour at the local movie theater. They pay 25 cents more than the Massachusetts minimum wage (which is already 75 cents more than the federal wage); they don’t charge her for the monogrammed black polo shirt that constitutes her uniform (unlike some businesses); they let her know her hours a few days ahead; and they are, simply put, nice people: film nerds who enjoy keeping an independent theater alive, who don’t mind if she reads a book while sitting in the box office and waiting for the next rush.

Still, it’s a business. Her hours each week never mount up to the point where they’d be responsible for her healthcare (30 hours a week or more); her schedule varies widely; when it’s slow, they let her go (and it’s been a slow year for movies). And, to reiterate: they pay $8.25 an hour.

You can’t blame them; they’re generous at paying more than the legally required wage. But it is, even for my daughter, a measly wage. She lives at home, but she’s scraping together savings for college, living very simply, contributing to the household.

So what her earnings really translate to? I wondered, after seeing this helpful and harrowing piece on What Life Really Costs at $7.25 an Hour.

First, there’s transportation. After taxes, she brings home $7.62 an hour. Last week, after working for 27 hours (and commuting for about 8 hours), she got a check for $205.71. Just to get there and back: Slice the bus fare off the top (2.10 each way; 4.20 round trip; times four): 205.71 – 16.80 = 188.91.

A sandwich = one hour’s work. Some days, when her shift stretches longer than eight hours, she gets a plain chicken sandwich at the place next door: 7.43 (with tax). So she works a full hour to buy a sandwich. Without a drink.

A book = three hours. She loves books and music, and we visit the library every week. But sometimes she likes to buy the ones she loves the very most. Her favorite graphic novelist, Emily Carroll, just published a beautiful new book, Through the Woods. On Amazon, discounted, it’s $18.10. So she worked almost three hours to buy it.

Work shoes cost a day’s pay. We do most of our shopping at Goodwill, but every once in a while, she indulges. She really needed a good pair of shoes as she stands most of the time at work. She got a cheap pair of Nikes at around $50: Basically, a day’s pay.

And what about college tuition? Again, she got lucky: Smith College offered her a whopping scholarship, covering about half the cost. Which left her with a bill of (only) $24,000 for a year, not counting books, art supplies, etc.

So if she wants to cover one year of college – at this deeply discounted price – she’s going to work 3150 hours. Or 61 hours a week for a year. If she wants to go for the full four years… it would take 12,598 hours. Of course, she couldn’t eat. Or pay rent, take the bus, buy shoes, or get her hair cut. At least she can go to the movies…

So she’s lucky in some ways. But so many workers do not enjoy her luck. In fact, the vast majority of low-wage workers do not match this “Poster Child” profile of the minimum wage worker.

EPI Who's Helped by Raising the Minimum Wage

Indeed, the average age of low-wage workers is 35. A third have dependent children at home. In our (extremely fortunate) Congressional district, 34,000 working families are using food stamps, and 71,000 are living below the poverty line .

A couple years ago, a good friend (the mother of my daughter’s best friend, in fact) landed the very same job my daughter has, after she and her husband got laid off from the capricious high-tech industry. She would don the same black shirt, and scoop out the same popcorn, and stand and smile for hours on end – for basically the same wages, which haven’t budged in the seven years since the last time Congress raised the minimum.

My friend was smart and sassy and, in truth, loved working at the theater. But the wages were so paltry that she often ate the popcorn for dinner, wore her shoes down to nothing, and lived in a constant state of anxiety about feeding and clothing her kids. She visited the local food bank, watched her car sputter out, and finally had to sell her house, pack up, and move back in with her parents.

Again, she was one of the lucky ones, since she had a safety net built from the thread spun in the heady days of prosperity for the middle class after World War Two. But she was a hard worker, too, and if she had earned a little more, hour after hour, she might have managed to keep her family afloat.

The minimum wage, to put it bluntly, is too damn low. Even for my daughter, and certainly for the 25 million workers (!) who toil for low wages, it’s time for a raise. It’s been seven years since Congress bumped the wage to $7.25, and there’s been no increase for cost of living.

Join us in helping to nudge Congress out of a partisan impasse that is endangering millions of children and exhausting millions of workers.

My daughter will survive. Millions of others may not.

Labor and Employment
minimum wage