When Alicia McCrary traded Chicago for Mason City, Iowa, she was probably more concerned with getting away from her abusive partner than with what life would be like for her and her four young boys in their new home.
In fact, she didn’t know where that new home would be until workers at North Iowa Community Action started helping her look for more permanent housing to transition from the domestic violence shelter where she first touched down two years ago. “Community Action was the best thing I could’ve run into once I got to Iowa,” McCrary said in an interview shortly after she testified before a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday about how the country’s low minimum wage keeps hardworking people from attaining real prosperity.
Nobody just handed McCrary housing, though, or a job. “It was my job to search through which landlord works best for me and my income,” she said. “I had goals to call a set of jobs that I’d applied for each week.” Eventually she found work at a fast food restaurant in Mason City, but the subsidized housing she was able to secure puts her and her boys more than 20 miles from where she works downtown.
“I love that place. They got dedication from the people that work for them,” McCrary said of her job. “I’m dedicated, I travel 22 miles, 23 miles every morning just to get to them. And for the dedication, you should get something.”
McCrary, who seems uncomfortable with the idea of charity, is proud to have played an active role in the reinvention of her own life. “My personal goal for this year is to just get rid of all the extra help,” she said. “TANF is supposed to be temporary, it’s not meant to be permanent,” McCrary added, referring to her checks from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Although the program provides up to five years of assistance, McCrary is itching to get past needing that help after just two years. “Just enough to get on your feet, get stable, and then walk strong,” is all she wants. “Two years ago I was weak, I got the help, now it’s time to walk strong.”
But at $7.65 an hour it’s hard to walk strong in the way McCrary wants to showcase for her boys. Worse, the bus she relies on to get to and from work doesn’t run late enough in the day to make full-time hours possible. McCrary works 25 hours a week because the earliest she can get in is about 9:00 in the morning and the last bus back home leaves town at 3:00 in the afternoon. With a $10 round-trip fare each day — “One check goes straight to the bus,” she said — and part-time hours at a hair above minimum wage, she can’t save a penny.
“I have no money for toiletries. Toothbrushes, socks, something as simple as a pair of pantyhose,” she says. In her hearing testimony, she described not being able to buy her four sons clothes when they need them and deciding which one gets to get their hair cut this month and which three have to wait. “Twenty dollars a week is all I want to save,” and hiking the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour could just about make that happen. The extra $200 or so dollars per month she’d earn after taxes from a minimum wage hike would let McCrary start to save up a deposit to move somewhere closer to work. But for now, she’s left scrambling just to keep her family’s heads above water.
“It’s like I’ll be on the ground forever,” she said, just “living off dreams through my boys.” Yet even those dreams of scholarships and personal enrichment are haunted by her financial insecurity. “I watch these kids get scholarships for school because they’re outstanding in sports. I can’t even pay for sports!”
“My son is 12 years old and a hundred-plus pounds,” she said. “Solid, you hear me? He would be the best football player. He loves band, playing drums, and I could do something with my kids if I had the money to help them become what they want to be.” But there’s no slack in the McCrary family’s budget for activities fees. “They don’t do fundraisers out here, you either come up with the money or your kid can’t go. It’s a fee for everything,” she said.
Last month, he wanted to join his friends on a school ski trip. It killed McCrary to tell him no, and afterward when his friends’ parents said they could have helped, “that made me feel even worse,” she said. “I work every day like you work, I just don’t make the kind of money you make.”
McCrary’s story is just one of millions like it. Black women make up a disproportionate share of fast food workers, who are not in fact mostly teenagers and young adults as minimum wage opponents like to argue. Trying to support a family on poverty wages is so common that one in five American kids has a parent working minimum wage.