In last Saturday’s Washington Post, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress authored a very thoughtful oped proposing that we raise the minimum wage, which currently is so low that it forces people who work full time to live in poverty. Miller argues that increasing the minimum wage is a much simpler solution to the problems of the poor than the raft of federal programs out there to help alleviate poverty. Plus, if the minimum wage were increased, thousands of workers would have the discretionary income to increase their consumer spending, improving the economy.
So what does Miller’s proposal have to do with journalism? In my mind, quite a bit. Here’s the problem. Most journalists haven’t been paid by the hour since they were teens babysitting or mowing lawns. When they report about the working poor, they fail to do the math, and since they thought $9 an hour was pretty good when they were 15, the reality of how little the minimum wage is and how inadequate it is to support a family is lost on them, and their readers and viewers.
So let’s do the math. A full-time worker earning the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25 earns a princely $15,080 a year. Let’s boost that figure up a bit, to the hourly wage of $10. Annually, that amounts to $20,800. Could you live on that? Would that be enough to pay for food, clothing, and shelter? (Let’s assume that your employer gives you health benefits, which isn’t too likely.) When you live this close to the bone, losing a dollar bill or a metro card that drops out of your pocket is a disaster. You can’t afford any sick time. A vacation is a faraway dream. No restaurants with tablecloths. No books. No movies. There is no margin for error. God help you if you thought you could raise a child or two, or live in a decent neighborhood.
So here’s my plea, all you journalists out there. Whenever you are doing a story about a minimum wage worker, do the math, and translate that hourly wage into what most of us are lucky to earn, an annual salary. It will not change national policy, but maybe it will give the rest of us just a little more empathy for the burdens of the working poor.