My only minimum wage jobs were when I worked part-time afternoons and weekends while in high school. Almost five years ago, when my life was in crisis and I was just about out of money — $7 to my name was the low point — I applied for and received government assistance. It was humiliating. It made much more sense, however, than taking a minimum wage job. Even a low wage job wasn’t a sensible option for me in those dark days.
Because of my privileged background, my education, my race, and my good luck, my work provides a good income when my life is stable and I’m able and willing to work.
Just over five years ago we fixed a leaking roof using credit we couldn’t afford; we had tenants who didn’t pay the rent they owed us; and we were committed to my being mostly at home with our young daughter. The expense of our divorce followed soon after. To best serve my clients — my mental and physical health suffered during this dark time — I paid other people to do the work and I paid them “too much,” or just about what I was bringing in. I lost money. All of this together led to the personal and financial crisis that started this column. I was “newly poor.”
My children are older now, my health has improved, and we have had some very good luck. I work long hours to stay afloat, but there is a bright light at the end of this tunnel, and it’s getting closer every day.
Everyone deserves to reach the light of financial stability.
Those of us who think of minimum wage as “what we earned in high school,” forget that thousands of people in Maine are trying to survive and support their families while making $7.50 an hour.
Maybe you’ve already seen the calculations. A 40-hour work week at $7.50 an hour leads to about $1,000 a month, after taxes. Try getting rent, food, toiletries, heat, transportation, health care, and other necessities out of $1,000 a month. Not possible, right? Still, people are trying to do it every day. It’s not just a stressful paycheck-to-paycheck issue. It’s a day-to-day survival issue.
People like me who come from privilege need to face the fact that it’s not just teenagers making some cash after school to buy records or go to the movies who are working for minimum wage.
The Maine Center for Economic Policy points out, “More than 23 percent of workers in Maine’s Second Congressional District earn minimum wage, the highest of any CD in New England. That’s 60,000 people in a region encompassing more than 11 of Maine’s 16 counties. Almost a third of women in the Second District would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage. These women aren’t working for ‘pin money’ — 62 percent of Maine women earning the minimum wage have no partner supplementing their income, as pointed out in a recent report by the Maine Women’s Policy Center.” People of color earn even less than white people in Maine. For example, while 54 percent of single white people in Maine earn a livable wage, only 45 percent of single people of color do.
We need to raise the minimum wage. Many economic experts suggest raising the minimum wage to $10.10 and then indexing it to rise with inflation. Perhaps that is more politically realistic than raising the minimum wage to $15 or $20 an hour, but even $10.10 is still dangerously insufficient.
There are many strong and logical arguments for raising the minimum wage, showing how raising wages actually helps businesses and the economy. However, the real reason we need to require that businesses pay their workers a livable wage is because to do otherwise is obscene. Expecting someone to work for wages that won’t cover the most basic of living expenses is bad business, that’s true. It’s also selfish, cold-hearted and cruel.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.