Surviving (or Not) on Minimum Wage

The country's lowest-paid workers will get raises today as the federal minimum wage increases 12 percent, or 70 cents, from $5.85 to $6.55 an hour.

But that's still not enough to pay the bills, say some members of the working class, including many who already earn more than the minimum wage.

Barbara Stepney, a 57-year-old grandmother in Baltimore, makes $7.15 an hour working in the laundry of a Comfort Inn. She says she can't afford health insurance, a car, or her own apartment.

"I'm slowly getting by," says Stepney, who contributes $350 to her sister's monthly rent. The rest of her paycheck goes to buying groceries, at $25 to $100 a week.

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Although she's close to retirement age, Stepney says she's about to take a second job, just so she can afford clothes, but even then, health insurance remains prohibitively expensive for someone her age.

"It's not enough money to make ends meet," she despairs. "I do the best I can – taking the bus, using coupons, but this ain't living."

Antonio Clemens, 31, who makes about $7.85 an hour at the Memphis Music Café, can't afford health insurance and is unable to save money in between paying $685 a month in rent on the apartment he shares with his wife and their two young children.

"You start to feel like you're really not going to make it," he says. "Look, I'm making over a dollar more than the minimum wage and it's tough to make ends meet. Instead of date nights, we stay home and play Battleship."

As part of a three-stage increase in the wage, passed by Congress last year, the minimum wage will jump to $7.25 per hour in July 2009. But almost half the country, 24 states, already have higher minimum wages, ranging from $6.79 in Florida to $8.07 in Washington State. The average wage in the country is $18.01 an hour, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

About 60 percent of minimum-wage workers labor in leisure and hospitality jobs, such as food preparation, and tend to be younger and unmarried, according to the BLS.

The numbers just don't add up for millions of Americans making close to minimum wage, say fair-wage advocates, especially in light of increases in gas and food prices.

Government surveys show the average price of a gallon of milk jumped from $2.67 in June 2003 to $3.77 in June 2008, and the price of a dozen grade A eggs has more than doubled, from 97 cents in June 2002 to $1.92 in Jun 2008.

The minimum wage increase represents a $28 increase in weekly wages, which is barely higher than the $21.18 increase in money spent on food and gas each week in 2008, according to the Center for American Progress.

"You can't live anywhere in this country on $13,624 dollars a year," says Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore, crunching the numbers on what the new minimum wage translates into as an annual salary.

"It's not enough to pay for housing, to put food on the table, to keep your house lit and warm."

Perkins-Cohen welcomes the wage increase, saying that every little bit helps low-income workers afford a few more groceries or higher electricity bills, but he stresses that it's just not enough.

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