You Just Can't Make It On Minimum Wage: Op-Ed by our President and CEO
September 2, 2015
I recently found an old pay stub from a summer retail job I held during college in the 1970s. For working a full week, my take-home pay was about $70. With that, I could save enough to pay for all of my books, living expenses for a year of dorm life at college, and probably have some left over in May when the semester ended.
It got me thinking about how far the minimum wage went then as compared to now. And while I am not proposing living in the past nor entering into a debate about the minimum wage, I am thinking about the ALICE Report. This report, by Connecticut United Ways, puts a face on working families by the numbers.
ALICE stands for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed - individuals who are working but still struggle to make ends meet. Simply put, an individual working full time at anything less than $10.32 per hour is just not going to be able to provide for the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, utilities, clothing and health care. Never mind having anything left over for any extras or unexpected expenses. This is compounded for a family of four - two adults, toddler and infant: $31.97 per hour is needed if the $64,000 annual survival budget is to be achieved.
I grew up in a family where my father worked and my mother stayed at home. We lived in a rental apartment, and although my father had a white-collar job, he had left school at 14 to help support his family. We had employer-paid health care, made monthly payments for a reliable car, used 14 percent of the income for rent, had steak about once a week and went on a two-week vacation every year, but had little or no savings. Then, life was good.
The ALICE Report shows that today, housing costs take up 21 percent of the budget of an ALICE family. Add child-care costs for a family of four and it eats up half the monthly budget. This is with both adults in the family working outside of the home at more than minimum wage.
It's clear that the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation since the 1970s. Certainly, it's important that employers pay a living wage, and I am proud to say that at United Way, we have made a commitment to pay at least $18 per hour to everyone we employ. It is the right thing to do and I would hope that many more employers read the ALICE Report and take a look at what they are paying at the lower rung of their pay scale.
Employers increasing their minimum wages is part of the answer. What is just as important is to ensure that children get a good education, that they are reading at grade level by fourth grade, and that they are graduating from high school, college- and career-ready.
But we cannot sit around and wait for the next generation to grow up; we have to do something for their parents right now. That means adult education and training for jobs in industry sectors that pay a living wage and better. It means building and retaining businesses in Connecticut that pay better than minimum wage.
It also means ensuring that our working families take advantage of the supports available to them to help with the costs of child care, health care, housing and food. These supports help close the gap for those struggling at the end of each month.
But a stopgap is not the answer to put families on the road to full self-sufficiency. We must be focused on investing so that our workforce is prepared for jobs in Connecticut that provide every family with the ability to meet monthly expenses and save for the future.
Utopia - probably not. Nor was it utopia when I was growing up. But my father was able to work full time, put food on the table, keep a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs, and even send me to college - all on little more than the prevailing minimum wage.
Susan B. Dunn is president and CEO of United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut. Learn more about ALICE: www.unitedwayinc.org/ALICECT