Members Of Congress Take ‘Minimum Wage Challenge’ To Live Off Reduced Budget For A Week


Since he began his minimum wage challenge on Sunday, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, now president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, has had eggs and toast, a bowl of cereal with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a banana. On Monday, he came to work with a bologna and cheese sandwich and a banana. “I’m not sure what I’m going to have for supper,” he told ThinkProgress.

This is not a typical menu for him. But given that he can only spend $77 a week while he’s taking the challenge, which asks lawmakers to live on a typical full-time minimum wage minus average taxes and housing expenses for a week, he has to “be sensitive about everything that I buy.” Eggs are fairly cheap, he reasoned, and “I have found out that bananas don’t cost a whole lot, so I stocked up on bananas.” He hasn’t eaten any other fruits or salads because they’re too expensive. For the remaining five days of his challenge, “I don’t think I’ll be eating very healthy,” he said. “Bologna’s a lot cheaper than ham. I’ve been eating quit a bit of bread.”

He’s also had to give up some pleasures. “I was walking by a nice restaurant last night near my apartment and people were sitting outside and eating nice food and drinking,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘You know what would be nice? To have a cold beer.’ But you know, I didn’t. Ordinarily I would, but if you don’t have much money there’s a lot of things you can’t do.”

And some things have come up that are more dire than skipped beer. He came down with a cold but was lucky enough to find Tylenol and Afrin nasal spray in his cabinet already. “I don’t think I would have been able to buy that Afrin nasal spray” on the challenge, he noted. “I never think about what medicine costs if i need it… But some people have to think constantly about how they spend their money, and their quality of life is quite different than mine.”

Strickland will be joined by some current lawmakers this week, including Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky (IL), Tim Ryan (OH), and Keith Ellison (MN), to mark the fact that Thursday will represent five years since the last minimum wage increase, leaving it at $7.25 an hour. And Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, the group that is organizing the Live the Wage challenge, said on a press call that they want more to join in, particularly Republicans. “We’re asking you to live the wage John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and others who insist the minimum wage is adequate or we don’t need a minimum wage at all,” he said.

The hope is that those who take the challenge get a taste of what life is like on a low wage, even if it’s temporary and they can go back to their normal lifestyles after a week. “I think it’s important for those of us in these leadership positions that get elected by our constituents to represent their views from time to time to take a challenge such as this,” Rep. Ryan said on the call, “to make sure we really are not just understanding this in an intellectual way but really understand the deep challenges that people face.” It’s meant to “bring awareness to this issue,” he said.

He and his family will take the challenge for a week and “make decisions that a minimum wage family would make,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to put our money where our mouth is.”

Rep. Schakowsky will also do the challenge with her husband, spending just $77 each on “all of our food, transportation, personal care products, and whatever entertainment,” she said on the same call, “although I doubt there’ll be much of that.” She has already run up against the constraints, saying it took her longer to shop for groceries as she got ready for the coming week because she had to weigh everything out and put some things back to make it all fit in her budget. “It does give us a taste of what it’s like to try to live on a minimum wage,” she said.

She added, “I’m hoping more of my colleagues will take the challenge, especially my Republican colleagues who will decide whether or when to call a vote” on the current legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, which was blocked by Republicans in the Senate. “After they would do it, I believe it would be hard for anyone to deny the importance of moving quickly to raise the minimum wage.”

Some state lawmakers have already done similar challenges to push for minimum wage raises in their states, and Schakowsky has taken the food stamp challenge, eating off of a food stamp budget for a week, to protest cuts. States have been more successful in raising wages: ten have passed higher wage floors since January. Progress at the federal level appears stalled, though.