Five state lawmakers in Minnesota have decided to take on the “Minimum Wage Challenge” and live off of a typical budget for a worker who makes the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
The state has one of the lowest minimum wages in the country at $6.15 an hour, which means it gets trumped by the federal wage. A worker who puts in 40 hours a week at that level will earn just $290 before taxes. The challenge limits the lawmakers to $5 a day for food and $9 for transportation.
Rep. Frank Hornstein (D) told CBS Minnesota that it made him take more notice of his costs. “An orange juice was $1.79. That’s not something that I would normally notice,” he said after getting breakfast from McDonald’s Dollar Menu. “Making the decision to take the bus today versus taking the car will save me a little money for dinner. For food,” he added.
Another lawmaker who lives far from the capitol, Rep. Shannon Savick (D), said, “I can live on what they set for food. I don’t eat a lot,” but she worried about transportation. Where she lives, “if you don’t have a car, you don’t go anywhere, because there is no public transportation. Driving will cost more than what they’re allowing me.” The other three participants are Democratic Reps. Karen Clark, John Lesch, Jason Metsa.
The challenge highlights how difficult it can be to live off of the minimum wage. It isn’t enough to keep a parent who works full time, year round out of poverty, even though in the 1960s it could keep a family of three above the poverty line. It isn’t enough to afford rent in any state in the country.
It’s also meant to help build momentum for legislation that would raise the state’s wage to $9.50 an hour. The legislature is expected to take it up after it returns on February 25 and Rep. Ryan Winkler, who authored the bill, said the goal is to pass it within the first two weeks of the session.
The state is just one of many that is home to a fight to raise the wage. Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C. have either legislative efforts or ballot initiatives to raise their wages, with the greatest number pushing for $10.10 an hour. That flurry of action comes while progress in Congress to raise the federal minimum wage stalls. President Obama has called on Congress to increase it to $10.10 an hour — and signed an executive order lifting federal contract workers’ wages to that level — but Republicans have opposed it.
Walking in someone else’s shoes to highlight an important issue has been used before. Three Congresspeople have spent time shadowing homeless people to better understand the challenges they face. Lawmakers have also taken the “food stamp challenge” and eaten off of a food stamp budget for a week.