"She's always working and never living."
"She's always scraping by and never getting ahead."
"Why doesn't she look for a better job?"
"Why can't she get it together?"
I was in the middle of a conversation that fired me up so much, it is a wonder my pink-haired head didn't explode. A group of parents was talking about the single mother of a kid at school. She's had a string of jobs that she's pitched us all on – come in to the pie place where she's working the register! stop by for a bikini wax and she'll give you a good deal! can you have her daughter over for a play date so she can work an extra shift over the holiday?
Under the guise of feeling sorry for her, the parents were criticizing her choices, her scramble, her poverty. I don't know the financial particulars of the parents in that circle, but I do know they all have two-income households, and none of them currently earn minimum wage.
Here's what we know definitively about minimum-wage earners in this country, thanks to a new report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition: Americans who work full-time for minimum wage cannot afford an apartment in nearly the whole country.
Those calculations are based on the "healthy" expectation that people will pay no more than 30% of their total income for housing. But the reality is diseased. Out of the 3,000 counties in this country, there are only 12 where a person earning a full-time minimum wage income can afford a one-bedroom apartment. There are zero counties where that same person can rent a two-bedroom with that paycheck.
The result is a deeper and deeper engrained cycle of poverty. More people offer up half or more of their income to housing, which means they don't have savings, default on other bills, rarely have time off, and have no room for a crisis of any kind, from a car break-down to a toothache to much bigger emergencies.
While our culture is currently glamorizing side hustles, people who earn minimum wage often have no choice but to work another more than one job just to take care of the basics.
"At federal minimum wage, the average American worker would need to log 117-hour weeks for 52 weeks per year to afford a two-bedroom apartment or rental home, according to the report. For the overwhelming majority, not even sharing a dual income with a federal minimum wage-earning partner would cover a two-bedroom rental in their state," HuffPost encapsulates.
While my own state has just raised the minimum wage to $10, that's still less than half of what it takes to secure two-bedroom housing. I also know a lot of consultants, self-employed small business owners and service-provider professionals who aren't consistently earning $20+ an hour, expanding the impact into what we like to think of as the middle class. Let's also not forget that single moms who've been divorced are far more likely to have an inequitable drop in income and stay in poverty longer than their former spouses.
Why? Why? Why? The federal minimum wage hasn't scaled with cost of living since the 1960's, HuffPost notes.
"Race is at the center of this crisis," says Glen Ford, executive editor of the Black Agenda Report and author of The Big Lie.
And we know this. We know it. We feel it, we see it, we hear it in the not-so-coded language of our current administration.
"Concentrations of poor people are by definition bad, and concentrations of affluent people are good," he continues on in noting in how politics on both sides of the aisle are tied up in public and affordable housing.
Ford also notes that developers aren't building affordable housing and the government has worked hard to get out of the federal public housing business.
One by one, the inequities fall, landing squarely on the shoulders of the poor, the "barely scraping by."
Back to our single mom at the center of conversation that could apparently take place on any playground, in any circle, in any county in this country. How's that single mom going to look for or find or even prepare for a better job if she's working 100+ hours a week to keep her family of two sheltered? And how can she get ahead if half of her paycheck is handed over to a landlord? There's no work-life balance, not many routes out.
What's the answer to this overwhelming and devastating problem? Speak up when you hear people criticizing minimum wage workers for not being or doing enough. Rally for higher minimum wages, state by state. Employ single moms. Pay your staff more than you're legally required. Write and call your representatives. Keep on and keep on and keep on.