Lawmakers Take The ‘Minimum Wage Challenge’ To Eat Off A Reduced Budget For A Week

CREDIT: Rashida Tlaib

Michigan State Rep. Rashida Tlaib buys a week's worth of groceries on $42

Rashida Tlaib is a state representative in Michigan. But on Wednesday when she checked out at her grocery store, she couldn’t afford all of the items and had to put some back. That’s because she’s taking a weeklong minimum wage challenge organized by Progressive States Network (PSN).

The organization has dubbed this a week of action and asked state legislators across the country to take the challenge, which means spending just $42 a week on food. It says it bases that figure off of what the Department of Agriculture estimates for a nutritious diet on the most bare bones budget. That money is all they can spend on meals and groceries, but lawmakers are also urged to consider whether they could afford gas on a low-wage budget or recreation like going to the movies or eating out. Thus far legislators in Colorado, Florida, and Michigan have signed up beyond Tlaib, and some Minnesota lawmakers did it in February. “The point of all of this is to raise awareness and bring visibility to the issue,” PSN’s Kate Oh told ThinkProgress.

Tlaib was certainly made aware. “I got to the counter and I thought I did well by calculating it,” she said. “But I actually had to put three items away, mostly breakfast food.” The experience isn’t completely unfamiliar to her. She remembers her immigrant mother having to put items back at the grocery store when she was growing up because she didn’t have enough money. “I remember how embarrassed she always was,” she said. “She would pause and think, ‘Which items do I really need right now?’”

Michigan State Sen. Jim Ananich's receipt from the minimum wage challenge

Michigan State Sen. Jim Ananich’s receipt from the minimum wage challenge

Things may have gotten even more challenging today. Tlaib’s cashier told her that she started out making minimum wage 28 years ago, but it used to go further. During her trip today, “a gallon of milk was six dollars,” Tlaib said. “It’s an hour’s work for a gallon of milk.” Her cashier seemed used to having someone have to put items back, as if it’s a regular occurrence. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 is far below where it would be if it had kept pace with increasing inflation or workers’ productivity over the years.

Michigan State Senator Hoon-Yung Hopgood took the challenge last week and said, “I think it was a challenge in terms of making decisions about what you’re going to buy and how you’re going to plan all of your meals.” But he may have had a slightly easier time than some. “In a minor way I guess I cheated a little bit,” he said, “having a public events and things like that, grabbing a snack or something at an event.” He also noted that he’s pretty flexible about what he eats, making it easier to switch to more mundane choices. But for his constituents who make minimum wage, “it’s not an exercise,” he said. “For them, it’s everyday, it’s life.”

Tlaib says she’s inspired to take the challenge by the people she represents, many of whom work minimum wage jobs and are often single mothers. “It’s the moms that light a fire underneath me to do something about it,” she said. And so far it’s served to get her even more fired up. “It’s just motivated me more” to pass a higher state minimum wage, she said. “As soon as [a higher wage] is on the ballot, all I’m going to do is work on making sure it passes.” A group of activists is pushing to get an initiative on Michigan’s ballot to raise the state minimum wage from $7.40 to $10.10 an hour.

The challenge doesn’t give lawmakers a complete view of what life is like on the minimum wage. It leaves out considerations like housing, car repairs, and other larger concerns that come up. To budget for all of those “would mean a complete overhaul of my current life,” Tlaib acknowledged.

And it may also be preaching to the choir. “It’s a good experience to go through but most of us that are doing it, we’re already people who are sympathetic,” she said. Hopgood believes that for public policymakers, “It’s important for them to understand the challenges that people with modest means fact.” He and state Sen. Jim Ananich, who also took the challenge, distributed a letter to the entire senate, but he doesn’t think anyone else took him up on it.

But these challenges have gained some traction. Federal Congresspeople have spent time shadowing homeless people while others have done the “food stamp challenge” by only eating what can be afforded on food stamps. The minimum wage challenges are in hopes of highlighting the issue as a large number of states move toward higher wages while action stalls in Congress.