Minimum wage in America: What are the true costs?

Helen Rogalski , Opinion Editor

Hard work and dedication are often thrown around as major factors of the infamous “American Dream” by politicians, average Joes, and everyone in between. The idea that you work hard to support yourself is an easy one to grasp. If you do a good job, odds are you’ll keep your job. If you care about your work, your work will probably care about you. All of these claims seem presumably reasonable and ideal, only they don’t line up with the reality of working class life across this country. At all.

The raising, abolishment, or keeping of the minimum wage throughout the United States has been brought up countless times throughout this year. Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, gained a lot of support and press by unapologetically demanding a higher wage across the country. The now Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has also supported this idea. Republican nominee Donald Trump has gone back and forth on his opinions of the matter, according to The Washington Post.

Let us set aside which candidate we will automatically side with and take a moment to look at the main ideas: how minimum wage varies state by state, what living on minimum wage is really like, and how having a low minimum wage actually costs the people of America in tax dollars.

Since July 24, 2009, the federal minimum wage in America has been $7.25 per hour, as reported by the US Department of Labor. However, not all states base their minimum wage after this. The Department of Labor has Georgia and Wyoming as the two states with lower hourly wages at just $5.15. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee have no minimum wage required. 14 states, North Carolina included, have their minimum matched with the federal wage, and the remaining 29 states as well as the District of Columbia require a higher minimum wage.

So, let’s look at living life on the federal minimum wage. Say a working mom has a 40 hour per week job paying $7.25 for four weeks. Before taxes, she makes $1,160 in that time. This equals out to be about $15,000 for a yearly wage. For a college student who only has to care for, support, and house herself, this even seems low. Working a minimum wage job like this one wouldn’t allow me to have the time or money to afford going to school. Let alone support a family.

In fact, The College Board estimates total cost of attending UNC Wilmington (with tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and estimated personal and transportation costs included) to be roughly $23,000 a year for an in-state student. $7.25 an hour feels incredibly low now.

If working full time at the federal minimum wage can’t even allow me to afford my education, how are people supposed to really live on this? Los Angeles Times reporter Jenny Jarvie followed how difficult life is for people living on a minimum wage salary.

“I’m just running all the time and I never have any money left over for me,” said a 19-year-old working two jobs at a total of 52 hours a week that Jarvie interviewed.

Another interviewee, Laugudria Screven Jr. is just 23 years old and donates plasma for the extra money on top of his work as a cook just to make ends meet, and still it’s difficult to do so. People who work deserve better than this.

The popular idea that workers should “pick themselves up from their bootstraps” is proven far more difficult if they’re working full time, commonly at two or more different jobs, and still don’t have enough money to put food on their tables.

It is obvious that a life on minimum wage is a difficult one. People who are working are also starving. Shouldn’t the government step in and require a higher, livable wage across the entire country? Many have tried, many have failed.

Two of the most common oppositions to the raising of the minimum wage that I hear are that if people want to make money, they should get educated and work higher up jobs, and that raising the minimum wage will hurt small businesses across the nation.

First off, the idea that people should have to work higher up jobs just to earn a living wage is inexcusable. Anyone who works a full time job should be able to afford to live. Period. Why belittle the people who work these types of jobs? At the end of the day, all of America needs those jobs to be filled. We benefit from people working those jobs. They should reap the benefits of being able to afford food, housing, healthcare, and education.

Secondly, the concern that raising the minimum wage will hurt small businesses is a valid one. For a local shopkeeper, the jump from paying their employees $7.25 to $15 an hour is a large one. However, Peter Van Buren with The Huffington Post reports that “carve-outs for really small businesses are possible” to aid in this situation. While keeping small businesses in mind, it is important to note that Van Buren also found that 60 percent of minimum wage workers are employed by businesses that the government does not consider to be “small.”

When people work full time (and then some) for minimum wage, and cannot afford to feed themselves or their families, food stamps (SNAP) come into play to aid in some relief. However, this type of aid for working people living in poverty winds up costing communities a lot of money. Van Buren wrote, “The annual bill that states and the federal government foot for working families making poverty-level wages is $153 billion.”

$153 billion is a whole lot of money, but not the most shocking part. Van Buren also reported that “A single Walmart Supercenter costs taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year in public assistance money, and Walmart employees account for 18% of all food stamps issued.”

Simply put, one of the biggest companies in the entire country is paying its workers such a low amount that they are forced to rely on government-provided services. The average Joe pays taxes, the hard worker uses food stamps, the big businesses pocket as much money as possible.

Having so many working people living in poverty has pushed many states across the nation to make active efforts to raise their minimum wages. DC and states such as Maryland and Oregon raised their’s in July of this year, followed by Minnesota in August, as documented by the Department of Labor.

As for North Carolina, a higher minimum wage statewide or on a local level does not appear to be in the near future. Governor Pat McCrory’s famous House Bill 2 prevents local governments from setting their own minimum wage.