Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst
What price would you put on an hour of your life? My answer would depend on which hour we are talking about. There are a few I would pay you to take away, and a few that are priceless – valued beyond all measure. But considering the market value - what dollar amount would you put on an hour of your life?
Here is the rub. What is the market willing to pay for your unique gifts, talents, and skills? The ability to earn a living, support our families and live a decent enough life is the result of an individual’s work ethic, responsible behavior, wise choices, talents and, most often, some privilege. If you received a college education, paid for by parents or scholarship, you were given an extraordinary gift that probably increases that value you place on your hour.
There used to be government programs which gave education grants to those of us who would not get to college otherwise. I know I’m standing here because of those programs. Government educational opportunity grants made it possible for me to attend college in the 1970’s. Nowadays, young people are offered loans instead, so they enter the work force burdened by debt for which they may not earn enough to repay. There is no guarantee that they will get the job and the pay they trained for and were led to expect when they signed those loan papers. Instead, they might join the ranks of minimal and unskilled laborers in the retail, service and personal care industry. A job is job, and we all have to start somewhere. Right? I have worked my share of minimum wage jobs, but those dollars went further than they do today. The minimum wage of 1956 was $1.00 per hour but, adjusted for inflation, it would buy $8.58 worth of goods today. 1968’s minimum wage of $1.68 would be worth $10.74 today. Today minimum wage is just $7.25, a significant drop in wages by comparison.
We also might have some assumptions about who works minimum wage jobs.
Contrary to stereotype, the typical worker paid minimum wage is an adult, not a teenager living with parents. Most have high school degrees or more.
Think of women working in garment sweatshops and chain stores.
Think of farmworkers, fast food workers and cannery workers who depend on food banks to help feed their families.
Think of janitors and housekeepers cleaning the homes, offices and hotel rooms of people who make more in a day than they make in a year.
Think of security guards without economic security.
Think of child care workers who don’t make enough to make ends meet, much less save for their own children’s education.
Think of health care aides taking care of our parents or grandparents—without health benefits, paid sick days or paid vacation.
Think of workers in New York going without heat and health care to keep food on the table.
Think of caregivers in California struggling to care for their own families.
Think of workers in New Orleans with no car or money to escape a hurricane.
A JUST MINIMUM WAGE: GOOD FOR WORKERS, BUSINESS AND OUR FUTURE http://letjusticeroll.org/sites/default/files/resources/AJustMinimumWage.pdf
Or think of seasonal workers on the NJ boardwalk, waiting tables, being cashiers or cooks in the fast-food kitchen, or the clean-up crew mopping up the mess we leave behind. Thousands of workers support the vacation industry this state thrives on. These workers have no job security, no benefits, no sick days or vacation. They are often one paycheck away from being hungry and homeless too. In the course of a week – how many people to do you meet who are trying to live on minimum wage? Every grocery run, coffee shop trip, retail and internet shopping trip usually involves just such a meeting with real people you know and depend upon. We have all come to depend on such cheap labor to provide comfort and services to our days.
Rev. Stephen Copley, chair of the national nonpartisan Let Justice Roll Living Wage Coalition said: “It is immoral that the minimum wage is worth less, adjusted for inflation, than the over $10 value it had in 1968, the year the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in Memphis while fighting for living wages. We cannot wait another year. People are suffering as they make the decision to buy groceries, purchase their medicines OR pay their utility bills. It is not right that in the richest nation in the world that people only make $7.25 an hour or $15,080 a year and have to make those kinds of choices. The clock is ticking toward the midnight hour, as Dr. King said. We cannot wait another year. (Our Let Justice Roll motto is) ‘A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it.’ Now is the time to act.” (Institute for Public Accuracy, Jul 24 2013)
I am speaking to you about this economic justice issue today because there is a public referendum question on the ballot this Tuesday. This is our now – our time to act! The question is – will you to vote to raise the minimum wage to 8.25 an hour in NJ and to link future increases to annual cost of living? This Election Day we have an opportunity to make things right, to balance the playing field and, I believe, to make all of us more secure and rich in the things that matter.
There are trends in compensation in the corporate world that have widened the gap, creating greater wealth for few and financial insecurity for many more people.
In fact the gap between CEOs and minimum wage workers has become a vast gulf:
• In 1980, the average CEO made as much as 97 minimum wage workers.
• In 2004, the average CEO made as much as 952 minimum wage workers.
(A JUST MINIMUM WAGE : GOOD FOR WORKERS, BUSINESS AND OUR FUTURE)
Such inequality is bad business as well as bad ethics. It stretches the bounds of our understanding of human dignity and worth. Such a growing class divide does not make us a stronger, more secure nation. And the global picture is no better. When people feel misused and undervalued for their work, when they cannot live with some dignity while working 40 hours a week (if they can get 40 hours), they become angry, disenchanted and both a threat and a burden to the global common good. Our chain of community is as strong as our weakest economic link.
So what does a person or a family need to do to make ends meet on $7.25 cents an hour? In NJ our housing costs are so high that it takes three full-time minimum wage jobs to pay for that housing and just the most basic necessities. I consulted a crowd sources wiki-how to learn some of tricks you need to know to survive:
(Wiki how)How to Live on Minimum WageEdited by Lily A, Mel, DifuWu, Krystle and 32 others
Assume you bring home $1000 a month after taxes.
Find a place to live within walking or biking distance to your job and for less than half of your income. Spending no more than $500 a month for rent and utilities probably means having roommates. If you can get to work both reliably and for free, you’ll cut costs and ensure you don't lose hours due to transportation problems.
An area with a mild climate will have a lower cost of living from heating costs and weather-related travel problems. So do not consider living in NJ in the winter.
Spend no more than $200 a month on household necessities. Buy raw ingredients and cook everything yourself, or get government assistance. Borrow a car if the store isn’t within cheap travel distance.
Budget $100 a month for “leisure." That’s $25 a week for things like buying clothing (from a thrift store) and non-work transportation. The more of that you can save for a rainy day, the better. Always look for free alternatives. The library has free books, music, movies, and Internet access. There are parks, recreational activities, and community programs, as well. But be careful never to overspend. It is far better to spend nothing for leisure at all, than it is to go into debt. Show discipline and strengthen your character. Avoid going to bars. It is easy to make poor money decisions when drinking, and having a drink at home with some friends always saves money.
Cut cellphone and cable TV costs. Cellular plans cost about $30 a month. If you don't use all the minutes in your cell plan, a prepaid or pay-as-you-go phone may save a lot. Cable TV costs at least $20 a month and goes unused most of the time. Watch TV on free online streaming services. Use the Internet in libraries, if you can.
Save the rest for medical and other emergencies. These steps leave you about $170 a month. That's enough for an individual monthly health insurance premium, if you're in good health to start and choose a high deductible. This is important, because even a small medical emergency can cost a lot of money and make you miss work. And you'll still have to pay out of pocket until you meet that deductible.
Do not use this medical money for anything else. If you’re in debt, budget to pay it off out of your leisure or food money.
Save automatically. Keep enough money in a free checking account to pay bills, then put the rest in a high yield savings account.
Get either a second job or a new higher paying job. You can’t afford a lot for leisure anyway, and since your first job takes only about 10 hours of your day, a second part-time job can help build that emergency cushion and the exposure could lead to an opportunity for a better full-time job.
There are always some choices that are better than others. Stay away from debt. Rethink everything you want to buy. Find ways to better yourself. If it is free, take it. Simplify your life. Learn new skills. Ask for help. Learn to live in NJ without a car or a phone or heat in the winter, if you can.
Such a description sounds almost possible until you add in having children while you work that second and third job. The stress economic insecurity creates in families is tragic. Children are not raised by their parents, their education is not supported in the home, and the tragedy of disaffection, poverty and despair are passed on to yet another generation.
A recent article in the Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann describes McDonald’s effort to show its employees how to live on minimum wage. The numbers couldn’t add up unless you worked two fulltime jobs. And he points out that minimum wage workers aren't really entirely on their own, especially if they have children. There are programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and the earned income tax credit to help them along. He says, “When large companies make profits by paying their workers unlivable wages, we all end up subsidizing their bottom lines.” (“McDonald's Can't Figure Out How Its Workers Survive on Minimum Wage” By Jordan Weissmann)
These are the choices you have when earning the minimum wage. What is an hour of any person’s life worth to you? What can we do to make this system fairer? One simple place to start is voting to increase the minimum wage and to ensure future increases for those here at the bottom of the income ladder. To expect employers to pay their workers fairly does not make us anti-business. An atmosphere of intense competition and ever widening income disparity that devalues the workers we depend upon does not strengthen the whole. And that is bad for business.
It is only fair to expect corporate citizens to do their part for the good of this whole. They benefit too from what we all pay taxes for – from roads and schools and public services that strengthen our society. Ethical business practices that care for all workers will earn those businesses far more than just a few extra dollars. A company that treats its workers fairly, with respect and dignity, earns a valued and respected place in our society. They build the trust in our common good. They help to create that beloved community that we dream of. And a worker who is better compensated strengthens our economy by putting those dollars back into it. Raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour (and more as time goes on) will make an immediate, concrete, life-saving difference to millions of people. The Minimum Wage was first made law during the Great Depression, and it is crucial that we do not leave the least among us behind and risk another Depression. We learned then that our civil society is deeply damaged by such neglect.
This Election Day and All Souls Sunday combination gives us a unique moment to ponder the worth of one hour of your life and mine. I think of those who came before us and how we stand upon their shoulders. Their work, their legacy, their hours are ours to value now and to carry forward. My parents and grandparents worked hard, physical jobs where their dignity and worth was often denied. I touch their struggle when I hope and pray that we are creating a better world for our children.
May all who struggle and worry week to week to feed and clothe and house their families know we stand with them. We offer assistance, yes, but also we offer justice - a true dignity that no one can take away. May we be the hands that build a fair and free world for all humanity. May these hands create justice every chance we get. May we be the ones to make it so. Amen.