© 2014 John Casimir O'Keefe

The Political Minimum Wage Game

  • Sumo

minimum wageI can’t be the only person thinking and feeling the way I do, though it seems I may be the only one willing to say anything about it (and I hope I am not). I need to let you know from the start, this may come across angry because I find it insulting that people in public office making my upbringing their political fodder. I am so tired of Politian’ claiming that they now understand what it mean to live on minimum wage (a poverty wage) because they spent one week “giving it a go.” Really, a week? You spent one week walking in the shoes of people who have been struggling for years and you now know? If you never lived in poverty, you will never understand how it changes you, how it focuses you and alters every thought you will ever have (To understand how those of us who were raised in poverty think may I suggest reading “A Framework for Understanding Poverty; A Cognitive Approach,” by Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D).

Over the past few weeks I have been reading news reports centering on Politian’ like Reps. Tim Ryan, Jan Schakowsky, Gov. Pat Quinn, and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland [here] and [here] with their “#LiveTheWage” challenge, and I’m not impressed. I get why, I truly do; I understand what their trying to do. But to understand what people like me, people who were raised in poverty, who see what they’re doing as a joke; it hurts and insults us at levels I’m not sure they can ever understand. I get that they’re trying to “get a grip” on the issue, or even get others to understand – but a week? It seems to me that it speaks more to the condition of our nation where those in power need to “try” and understand how 1.6 million Americans struggle live. Do they think that walking in my shoes for a week is enough? Can you truly experience the hardships of living wage poverty in a week? Do you see people struggling to live on, or below, poverty wages as a social experiment?

I was raised in poverty by a widowed mother striving to raise six kids[1] on her own. She worked 12 hours a day for minimum wage, under a boss who demanded she not be one minute late – or she would be fired; because, as he like to tell everyone, “There’s always another monkey looking for a banana.” She was the invisible women, the one cleaning up after you when you stayed at that hotel, you know the hotel that charges $500.00 a night, but can’t afford to pay a livable wage to its staff. She was the one cleaning your toilet, changing your sheets, picking-up after you, making sure you had fresh towels, soap and shampoo – you know, the women who made your life easier during your stay, the one whose name you never even bothered to ask, or if you did, didn’t care to remember. Watching my mother do all she could to put food in the mouths of six kids, many times going without, focused my walk. I would love for the Politian’ to answer a few questions; in your experiment, did you have your family with you? Did you go without eating so your kids could have macaroni and cheese for dinner, not as a side? My mother did, and on those special days we might be able to chop up a few hotdogs or half a pound of ground meat (not sure it was beef) as an added treat. Did you have to stand in line at a local church for food, and be required to sit through the service before they give you any? It was not an experiment for her, or us, it was our lives – our daily existence – how we learned to cope – and how we learned to mistrust those in power playing games with our lives. I understand why, but can you understand my anger at your “living the wage” for a week?

Living for a week on minimum wage is easy – because you don’t have to worry if you put enough aside this month to pay the gas bill, the electric bill, the phone bill and the rent. You did face the nastiness of the collections departments of the utility companies telling you they are about to cutoff your services unless you pay? Did you have to experience the threat of “making a deal” to pay a little extra each week to pay the bill – knowing that you would never truly catch up? Did you have to face the angry landlord banging on your door at 6:00am because your rent is three days past due? You never had to live, breath and embrace the reality of “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul.”Did you wake up each morning and praying that your car would start? And if it didn’t, pray it was something that could be fixed with a butter knife, duct tape and a wire coat hanger? Did you have to get up three hours before you needed to be at work in case the car didn’t start so you could walk the five miles to get to work on time?

My life, my upbringing, was not walked to be the light hearted story on the local news, or a conversation at a political fund raiser, or a social dinner party where you get to share your experience of how hard it was to live “like those people” for a week.

You’re not learning what it is like to be the working poor, you are living in an uncomfortable situation for a week because you can’t use a credit card – besides, when those who live on minimum wage do have a credit card they are paying upwards of 43% interest. If you truly want to know what it means to live in poverty, live on a minimum wage, why not talk with me or others like me who have lived the experience?

Do you truly desire to know what it is like to live on minimum wage? Give it six months. Move out of your gated communities, find an apartment in the low rent area of your home district, move your whole family over and live on minimum wage – Pull your kids out of their private schools and enroll them in the public schools in the area – shop in the area (if you can). Spend only the minimum wage – not taxis, no airplanes, only mass transit as long as it fits the budget. When you do that, I will say “kudos to you, you get it.” I am certain you won’t, because giving up the comforts of your current life is possible for a week, but no longer.

 

[1] There were seven of us, but my older sister whet to live with my Grandparents.

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