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Surviving on Minimum Wage

March 25, 2015

Seattle has voted to boost its minimum wage to $15 an hour over time. The first increase takes the minimum wage to $11 an hour. But is that enough to live on in this expensive city? We profile a young barista, a temporary worker and a grocery store clerk to drill down into what it takes to stretch minimum wage to a living wage, especially with housing taking such a big chunk out of the budget.

Cunningham: On Fifth Avenue, signs of prosperity proclaim that Seattle is among the top high income cities in America. But look beyond the glitzy shop windows and you’ll see what federal government stats also confirm: the rising tide did not float all boats.

Diana Pearce: Employers aren't going to pay any more than they have to.

Autumn Brown: It just seems really unfair!

Willie Fowler: I really would love to go to a movie and have a latte!

Autumn Brown is student studying web design at Seattle Central College.

Cunningham: More than ever, Seattle is a city of latte drinkers and latte makers. Walking down Fifth Avenue, you see Gucci purses on diamond-braceleted arms and battered messenger bags slung across polar-fleeced shoulders. Twenty year old Autumn Brown’s been carrying this messenger bag since high school. Autumn, she’s one of the latte’ makers, earns 33 hours a week. She is also a full-time student.

Brown: Right now, I make 11 dollars an hour.

Cunningham: That’s Seattle’s new minimum wage.

Brown: Madeline i have your mocha.

Cunningham: Is it enough to survive in this expensive city?

Brown: I rely on shift meals, discounted food at work.

Cunningham: Autumn knows how to stretch a dollar. She doesn't go out, she cuts and colors her short blonde hair.

Brown: I've been pretty much wearing the same clothes since high school.

Cunningham: According to union estimates, roughly 100,000 workers in Seattle make less than 15 AN hour. Housing takes the biggest bite out of autumn’s carefully crafted budget. She shares a house on a busy road near Northgate Mall with two roommates and a roommate’s 3-year-old son.

Brown: It’s $2200 a month.

Cunningham: That’s do-able at 11 dollars an hour.

Brown: But it is at the price of having so much on my plate at one time and I feel like if I make one mistake it will all fall apart

Cunningham: That may already be happening.

Brown: I drove into a fire hydrant. Now I owe the city $3,000.

Cunningham: Autumn doesn't know where that money is going to come from. Her biggest fear is that she will have to drop out of college and won’t be able to become a web designer. Imagine if she made the federal minimum wage: $7.25 an hour. $77 a week. That’s the national average of what minimum wage workers have left to spend on transportation and food and other life necessities after they have paid for housing and utilities. Only $77 a week for bread, milk, cereal, oranges, toilet paper, razors and laundry detergent.

Diana Pearce, with the School of Social Work at the University of Washington, created the Self Sufficiency Standard which calculates the bare minimum people need to make an hour to survive in various locations in America.

Pearce: It’s an alligator jaw getting wider and wider and people are getting caught in the crunch.

Cunningham: Diana Pearce says the federal poverty line, which helps set america’s minimum wage, has not kept up with the real cost of basic needs. Pearce, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, has created an alternative measure which is being used in 37 states. According to her “self sufficiency standard” even Seattle’s minimum wage, the highest in the country, isn't a family wage.

Pearce: Two adults with school age children and a preschooler have to earn 15 dollars an hour now, each of them working full-time year round, just to meet those basic needs with no extras. If you are a low wage worker and you don’t have that, things could snowball very quickly. Housing especially is a big issue.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard

Developed by Diana Pierce while she was the Director of the Women and Poverty Project at Wider Opportunities for Women, the Self-Sufficiency Standard measures how much a family or individual must earn to meet basic needs, based on family composition and where they live, without public or private assistance. In the example on the right a family with two adults, one preschooler and one school-age child, living in Seattle, needs $5,746 a month. That comes out to roughly $17 an hour.

For more on Diana Pierce and the Self-Sufficiency Standard see:

Cunningham: Meet Willie Fowler. He works in Everett building planes.

Fowler: The job is assembly, it is for Boeing putting together parts and sending them on down the line.

Cunningham: Willie lives in Queen Anne, an upscale neighborhood close to downtown Seattle. But his home doesn't have walls or running water. Willie is a resident of tent city, a homeless camp temporarily hosted at Seattle Pacific University.

Willie Fowler lives in a Tent City for the homeless set up at Seattle Pacific University.

Fowler: I work as a temp, so I don’t make a lot of money at all! I make 9 bucks.

Cunningham: The first thing Willie noticed about Seattle when he moved here from Nevada was that it’s tough to get a permanent full-time job. Willie was a medic in the military and thought it would be relatively easy to land a job in the medical field.

Fowler: With my military background, in Seattle it wasn't enough. I was just shocked about that!

Cunningham: The second thing Willie noticed in Seattle was that landlords call the shots

Fowler: There is no rent control whatsoever. They can charge whatever they want, first, last month’s rent, a security deposit, a pet deposit, damage deposit, $40 for the application.

Cunningham: Four years ago, Willie was living in an apartment with his wife and two stepsons and a baby on the way.

Fowler: What really made it hard at the time was when I was let go. We got evicted.

Pearce: We, meaning all of us, pay when families fall apart.

Cunningham: Fast forward to today, Willie is divorced. His baby girl lives with her mother. Willie, and his fiance, are saving up to leave tent city and Seattle.

Fowler: Just found out my significant other is expecting another one.

Cunningham: Willie believes it will be easier for him to support his new family someplace where the job market isn't so competitive.

Michael McGovern, who works in the deli at Central Co-op, says the new higher wage allows him to plan for his future in Seattle.

Michael McGovern: I can’t imagine how they sleep at night, business owners whose employees don’t have enough money for bills and then get their utilities cut off.

Cunningham: Michael McGovern moved to Seattle from Florida because he’d heard Seattle’s economy was booming.

McGovern: I've got two happy egg sandwiches off the grill!

Cunningham: It’s a bet that’s paid off for him.

McGovern: Due to the new contract signing, I saw approximately a 3 dollar an hour increase.

Cunningham: Yes you heard that right.

McGovern: A $3 an hour increase.

Cunningham: Michael works at Central Co-op in capitol hill, where ‘every employee’ already makes at least 15 dollars an hour. The inspiration for the change came from this.

Cunningham: The Central Co-op general manager took the message of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington to heart. He also did the math.

Dan Arnett (general manager of Central Co-op): If we think about the $2 an hour that Dr. Martin Luther King’s folks were asking for in 63, when adjusted for inflation that comes out to about the $15.36 we are offering right now at entry level.

Dan Arnett, the General Manager at Central Co-op, helped raise the minimum wage at the grocery store above $15 an hour for all employees.

Cunningham: Dan Arnett proposed offering the highest grocery store wage in the country to Central Co-op employees, and the board said ok.

Arnett: Our story is one that is good for others to hear. It is possible to grow a sustainable, thriving business and also make sure that you treat people well.

Cunningham: The raise has allowed Michael and his wife the luxury of dreaming about their future in Seattle.

McGovern: We moved out of an apartment, a one bedroom apartment, and into a house that will allow us to have a family. Now we can afford to plan! As opposed to just to live.


Made possible in part by

Jenny Cunningham

Jenny Cunningham’s favorite kind of story is the one she hasn’t done before. Whether it’s reporting for TV or writing for magazines, travel or tribulation, Cunningham likes discovering something new. At KCTS, Cunningham has covered everything from the history of Hanford’s race to build the atomic bomb to biodynamic wine to opera supernumeraries. Cunningham has been honored with television journalism's most prestigious awards including Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Series in America.

As a writer for magazines and newspapers Cunningham’s features have appeared in publications including the Irish Times, Sunset Magazine, Seattle Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, The Oregonian and Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Cunningham has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University and she graduated cum laude from USC with a BA in Journalism and a BA in Theater

More stories by Jenny Cunningham