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The most overlooked reason America needs a better minimum wage

If the #FightFor15 isn’t enough for women, that’s because it isn’t enough for anyone.


Nico Lang

Internet Culture

Posted on Jun 1, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 5:10 pm CDT

On May 19, Los Angeles announced a wage hike that sounds awfully groundbreaking: The city is going to raise minimum wage to $15, responding to a national #FightFor15 movement among America’s low-wage workers. While it makes for a trendy hashtag, the problem is that it doesn’t address the real issues Los Angelenos are facing in an increasingly expensive metropolis—or Americans in any other city, for that matter.

A recent report from Curbed LA showed that it was nearly impossible to live in any neighborhood in the city on $15 an hour. As the site’s Adrian Glick Kudler explains:

Assuming a person earning $15 an hour is also working 40 a week, which is rare for a minimum wage employee, and that they’re not taking any days off (the City Council considered bundling paid days off with the wage hike, but scrapped the idea), they’d be earning $31,200 a year. An Economic Policy Institute study released in March found that a single, childless person living in Los Angeles has to make $34,324 a year just to live in decent conditions (and that was using data from 2013).

The other problem with Los Angeles’ policy is that it won’t even take effect until 2020, a huge problem when rents around the city continue to skyrocket. In 2013, ranked L.A. as the fifth most expensive U.S. city to live in, where a one-bedroom apartment will cost you $1,740, and between 2013 and 2014, estimates show L.A. rent shot up more than 13 percent, escalating even more quickly than San Francisco’s famously high rent.

And that’s just over the course of 12 months. Can you imagine what rent in L.A. is going to be like five years from now, by the time that $15 minimum wage actually takes effect?

If $15 minimum wage is, thus, a woefully inadequate solution to Los Angeles’ inflation pressures, the case is not much better anywhere else. As the discussion over #FightFor15 reaches a fever pitch, a 2012 infographic from the National Low Income Housing Coaltion is going viral. According to the NLIHC, if a worker is earning $15 an hour, 40 hours a week for 52 days of the year, it still isn’t enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment in half the states in the U.S. In California, one would have to take home $26.02; that number is even higher in D.C.: $28.96, almost twice L.A.’s proposal.

Can you imagine what rent in L.A. is going to be like 5 years from now, by the time that $15 minimum wage takes effect?

The rebuttal here almost writes itself: “Well, if you’re working a minimum wage job, don’t rent a two-bedroom apartment. Problem solved.” This logic, however, assumes that the majority of minimum wage workers are teens and young people without families or long-term commitments, the people who can afford to work their share of dead-end, low-wage jobs before something better comes along. (See: James Franco’s recent McDonald’s apologia.)

But that’s far from the case. According to 2011 findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a majority of employees earning minimum wage are over the age of 25, with 53.4 percent of those workers actually making below the national minimum (currently set at $7.25). Many of these workers have children and families to support, which is difficult to do on $15 an hour.

Dr. Amy K. Glasmeier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a living wage calculator to estimate how much workers must earn to survive at a basic level across the 50 states. (Her estimates take into account necessities like living costs, food, housing, transportation, and child care.) A single parent living in Los Angeles has to earn $26.10 an hour to support one child, $31.47 to support two, and $39.92 to support three, which comes out to $83,000 a year (after taxes). While a two-parent family with one child is currently able to afford living in the city on $14.20 an hour for each earner, that’s not likely to remain the case.

Even outside of major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, D.C., and New York, the odds are stacked against single parents. In Tennessee, the state with the second lowest cost of living in the U.S., a parent needs to make at least $20.29 an hour to support any amount of children.

These burdens are disproportionately placed on minority families and especially single mothers. According to the National Women’s Law Center, half of minimum wage workers are adult women, 75 percent of whom don’t have another household earner to supplement their income; in West Virginia, a shockingly high 80 percent of workers at the lowest economic rung are female. That means that in 1 in 3 households supported by single mothers live in poverty.

Even outside of major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, D.C., and New York, the odds are stacked against single parents. 

This, of course, is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the gender divide, as NWLC stats also show that women work 75 percent of the lowest-earning occupations in the U.S., as well as comprising two-thirds of workers relying on tips to pay their bills. The national minimum wage for tipped employees is an absurdly low $2.13, which is unlikely to be affected by the $15 hikes in a country dependent on “customer appreciation” to provide worker income.

Glasmeier’s index shows that young people have the ability to supplement their incomes by adding an adult to the household: moving in with romantic partners to save on rent and cut down on costs. According to Glasmeier’s index, the benefits of shacking up in L.A. are high, as an adult with a live-in mate only needs to make $9.94 an hour to get by. (In New York and San Francisco, that number goes up to $10.01 and $10.72.)

But as a 2012 Guardian report shows, moving in together for the rent is a dangerous game, as couples might find themselves stuck in unhealthy (or even abusive) relationships, simply because neither partner can afford to move out. 

This is a particular concern for working mothers, as Erik Stegman and Katie Wright from the Center for American Progress explain:

[W]omen who live in economically distressed households and neighborhoods are more likely to experience domestic violence. Women without their own financial resources or who are economically dependent on their abuser are more likely to stay with their abuser or return to their abuser if they have already left, and they are less likely to get a restraining order against their abuser. This situation leaves low-income women trapped by their lack of financial resources.

As the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board argues, the proposed $15 minimum may provide a boost in helping single mothers and other low-wage workers break the cycle of economic (and actual) abuse, but what the economy truly needs is “more jobs that pay higher than the minimum wage, and more opportunities to move up the career ladder.”

While job creation is a huge part of the equation—including the $20 and $30 an hour jobs that will help working families make ends meet—the movement is not just for living wages but for economic equality for women across America. An oft cited statistic is that women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, but that only tells part of the story: Women are being pushed out of the mainstream economy at every level, forced to work some of America’s most thankless, grueling occupations, all while raising a family. 

If the #FightFor15 isn’t enough for women, that’s because it isn’t enough for anyone.

Nico Lang is the Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot.

Photo via thebridge/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jun 1, 2015, 1:32 pm CDT