State Senator Dwight Bullard is wrapping up an attempt to live on minimum wage for seven days. He says his goal is to raise awareness about the difficulty those earning less than $8.00 an hour face in an effort to push for an increase in the state’s minimum wage. But, while activists praise the Miami Democrat’s efforts, they say his experience doesn’t come close to what those actually living life on minimum wage go through.
Because of an amendment to Florida’s constitution, the state’s minimum wage is recalculated each year to adjust for inflation based on the federal Consumer Price Index. Right now it’s $7.79 an hour. That’s above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, but still well below some areas. In Washington State, for instance, the minimum wage is $9.19 per hour. Still, Florida’s law can be much more lucrative than Georgia’s, where employees who don’t fall under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act can earn as little as $5.15 an hour. Still, Senator Bullard said living on minimum wage has been harder than he thought.
“The reality is that the average minimum wage worker in Miami Dade County is living on, after they’ve paid their housing and figured out those bills, they’re only living on $52.67 a week,” Bullard said.
But the senator did keep some luxuries, like his house and his cell phone, during his week long experiment. Even if he hadn’t, activists say the senator’s experience pales in comparison with what a person who has to actually survive on so little money goes through. Someone like Sylvia Kitchen. She's a 40-year-old single mom with a 5-year-old daughter named Brianna.
Kitchen and her daughter live in a small, but neatly kept apartment. The walls are plastered with artwork Brianna did at the Headstart program she attends, as well as family photographs and a chart detailing what bills Kitchen has to pay this month and how much she has left to spend.
“Since I’ve been on my own that’s how I do my budget. And everything, whatever I have to do for the month, I make a list of all my events and I write a list of all my bills, so I keep tabs of everything that I have to do for that month and all the bills I have to pay and I make sure if we don’t have to buy it, we don’t buy it. We buy what we need and not what we want,” Kitchen said.
Right now, Kitchen’s income is about $700 a month. $350 will go to rent and this month. $143 will to go her electric bill – though in the winter Kitchen said her family’s electric bill can top 250 dollars. She said that’s because the heater in her apartment doesn’t work. So she has to depend on space heaters to keep warm. Besides public assistance, Kitchen’s income comes mostly from the daycare she runs out of her home. But she has only one client who comes just a few times a week. So she’s always searching for other income streams.
“I was a manager at a convenience store. I worked at FAMU dining service. I worked up there. I worked at Wendy’s. So I did a whole lot of jobs. Fast foods. Convenience stores. I do not discriminate. I’ll work anywhere that I can,” Kitchen said.
But even if Kitchen gets a full-time job working for minimum wage, her income will still put her below the national poverty line. That’s the reason Bullard said he’s throwing his weight behind a bill in Congress to increase the national minimum wage –and considering a similar bill in Florida. One bill that’s under consideration in Washington is authored by 9th District Congressman Alan Grayson.
“We’re expecting people to somehow survive without having enough money to survive even though they work full time,” Grayson said.
Grayson’s bill would raise minimum wage to about $10.50 per hour, which he said would help pull millions of people nationally above the poverty line. But that can be a double edged sword. Tim Center is the executive director of Tallahassee’s Capital Area Community Action Agency. The group provides safety net services for low-income individuals. It also offers a class called “Getting ahead,” which Sylvia Kitchen is taking. She said she gets a $25 Walmart gift card every time she goes—something she’s been saving to pay for her daughter’s clothes and supplies when she starts kindergarten in the fall. But Center said his group can only help those who make less than 125-percent of poverty.
“But if you make a dollar more than 125-percent of poverty that dollar probably doesn’t make a big difference to you, but it keeps you from being able to get our services. So that’s always been an issue regarding the availability of services based on how much you make income wise because it misses the point of what the true need is,” Center said.
According to Center’s estimates, a person would need to make more than $25,000 dollars a year to alleviate the need for public assistance programs. Still, many members of the business community have concerns when it comes to increasing minimum wage. Bill Herrle is the executive director of Florida’s chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. He said an increase has the potential to hurt business.
“That money is going to come from somewhere. It’s either going to come from higher prices for that business' customers. Or if not laying off employees, then a reduction in hours until before you know it, yes, there’s an equivalent of a job loss there,” Herrle said.
Meanwhile, those who support an increase in minimum wage, like the AFL-CIO, disagree. Rich Templin is the Florida AFL-CIO spokesman.
“This isn’t just about caring about people. It’s about economic fundamentals. If you have a growing segment of the work force that does not have any type of expendable income – they do not have money to spend, they do not have money to be full participants in the economic system, the economy suffers,” Templin said.
Templin said increasing the minimum wage would increase the amount of money people are spending, which he said is good for business and would eventually grow jobs. And Sylvia Kitchen said she’d like to see an increase too. She’s not worried about the possibility that earning more money could mean she’d get fewer services. She said she just wants a few dollars to call her own.
“I don’t think no people care about them services. I think they would rather have more money in their pockets,” Kitchen said.
Both Bullard and Grayson said they recognize their push to get a minimum wage increase passed is filled with roadblocks. But they said they’re happy to just to see a growing conversation on the subject.