By Maggie Thurber | For Ohio Watchdog
In an effort to generate support for raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, numerous politicians accepted a challenge to “Live the Wage.” To no one’s surprise, they couldn’t do it.
That, of course, was the point.
Participants were going to live for a week on $77 – that’s the amount challenge sponsors say a full-time worker earning minimum wage makes, after average taxes and housing expenses are deducted.
Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland gave up. He started on a Sunday, but ran out of money by Thursday, he explained in a column for Politico. He said he skipped meals to save money and ate smaller, less healthy meals.
“Because fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find at a price within a minimum wage budget, I turned to bread, peanut butter, bananas and bologna more than anything else,” he wrote. “That was what I could find when I took this budget to the grocery story last Sunday. And that’s why I ate lunch from the McDonald’s dollar menu.”
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, spent his money foolishly, paying $7 for sardines and crackers, $5 for a Burger King Whopper, $2 for a cup of coffee and his “last couple of dollars to buy trail mix,” he explained on his Facebook page.
Most people on minimum wage don’t waste money like that.
I wondered if I could do better.
I took the food stamp challenge when it was all the rage and realized that I could feed myself and my husband on the $23 a week that organizers said was all we had to spend. I also realized how ridiculous other politicians could be when it came to such stunts.
I showed how to do it rather than succumb to the hysteria and myths about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP, for short. Apparently, everyone ignored the fact that it is supposed to be a “supplement” to the weekly food budget.
That’s true of this “Live the Wage” challenge, too. You’re not supposed to be able to support a family on a minimum wage job. It’s designed to be a starting wage for unskilled workers until they gain experience and merit a raise.
In the end, only a small number of Americans try to support themselves and their families in minimum wage jobs. Only 1.7 percent of Ohioans are single parents earning minimum wage, while less than 5 percent nationally are heads of households earning minimum wage. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 4.3 percent of those in the workforce earn at or below the federal minimum wage.
And those individuals are eligible for several other government benefits, including SNAP, Aid to Dependent Children, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, utility vouchers and transportation vouchers. They’re not really getting by on just $77 a week.
To start our challenge, my husband and I decided on a budget. Since we’re both employed, we have $154, the same as Ryan.
Being able to get to work is a priority, so the first thing we purchased was gas. We used our Kroger fuel points and paid $44 to fill up the tank, which is enough to last the week.
With $110 left over, I went grocery shopping and this is what I bought.
And here is our menu for the week:
Yes, it’s a bit repetitive, but overall, fairly healthy and in ample quantities.
We opted for a box of tea that was on sale and much cheaper than coffee, with no need for an extra expense like coffee filters. We went with regular lettuce instead of the mixed greens we normally get. We bought bulk sausage for the spaghetti because it was on sale and cheaper than ground chuck. We took advantage of Kroger’s sale items like corn on the cob, yogurt, grapes, carrots, tuna and pasta. We always cut coupons so that wasn’t something new.
By purchasing sale items and using coupons, we saved $11.05 — or 16 percent of our grocery bill.
We also decided on two splurge items: Outshine frozen pineapple bars and a 12-pack of Fresca. Those two items totaled $7.99.
Total cost for groceries was $82.83, leaving us $27.17 for emergencies or other expenses throughout the week.
We approached the challenge as if we had both lost our jobs and taken minimum wage jobs to get by. Under this scenario, we’d have some items on hand, like paper towels, detergent, aspirin, condiments and corn to make popcorn for snacks.
But with $27.17 remaining in our budget, or going without our two splurge items, we’d be able to purchase those supplies as we needed.
The best part is that this menu isn’t too much different from what we normally eat, with fresh fruit and vegetables and other healthy options.
So rather than show how hard it is to live on a minimum wage job, this menu and budget shows that it can be done without sacrificing healthy food — or even entertainment. Our local video store always has $1 movie rentals and most are ones we’ve not yet seen, so we plan to rent one for a low-cost date night.
Why couldn’t Strickland and Ryan have done this?
Perhaps what this challenge really proves is that too many politicians have no clue how to plan and live within a budget. But then, one look at the federal deficit tells us that — and without all the publicity and hype of them failing to “Live the Wage.”