What it's like trying to live on minimum wage—it's a 'constant struggle'

Many Americans are striving to live off minimum wage jobs, many of which are in fast food and retail.
Al Schaben | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Dougleshia Nicholson is a single mother of six trying to survive on minimum wage in Kansas City, Missouri. One of her sons has asthma, and she estimates she's been to the emergency room for her kids six or seven times so far this year. But her cashier job at Church's Chicken doesn't come with paid time off and every shift is essential.

"It's stressful because I basically have to pick and choose what's more important," Nicholson tells CNBC Make It. "Of course my child is more important, but at the same time, I have to work and make money to be able to support and take care of them."

While Nicholson, 28, makes $8.60 an hour, $1.35 more than the federal minimum wage, thanks to a recent state increase, she says it's still not enough money to get by, especially since her hours (and paycheck) can vary significantly week to week.

"The hours are constantly shifting. I don't have a set schedule," Nicholson says, adding she's notified about her start time the night before via text message. Sometimes that doesn't come until 1 a.m. "By that time, me and my children are in bed." Church's did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

To support herself and her kids, Nicholson is forced to rely on assistance from both her family and the government. "I'm currently homeless, so I stay with my mother," she says, adding that she helps with rent when she can. She also relies on food stamps to buy groceries for her family. Yet even with that support, there are weeks where she doesn't have the $15 needed to take the bus to and from work. Instead, she walks, rain, snow or sun.

"You can be doing everything right and it's still not enough," she says. "It's a constant struggle every day."

A steady push toward a mandatory $15 minimum wage

It's been 10 years since Congress set the current federal minimum wage at $7.25. Yet across the board, wages simply are not keeping up as day-to-day costs continue to soar. Pew Research found that the average paycheck has the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. That's true even in smaller metro areas where the cost of living can be lower.

In fact, it's more difficult than ever to get ahead, especially if you're trying to do so on minimum wage. When it was signed into law in 1938 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, minimum wage was designed to provide workers a livable salary. Yet Nicholson's typical 20 hours a week at Church's Chicken adds up to about $8,300 annual pay, far below the $78,407 the Economic Policy Institute estimates a family of four needs to live modestly in Kansas City.

Dramatic increases in education, child care and housing costs are at the core of this struggle, especially for families like Nicholson's. U.S. median home prices have increased at nearly four times the rate of household incomes since 2000, according to research from real estate data company Clever.

The battle to raise the minimum wage isn't new: The Fight for $15, a campaign to raise wages for fast food workers, first launched in New York City in 2012. Nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates support doubling the federal minimum wage, and this week, Democrats are bringing legislation to the floor of the House of Representatives. The Raise the Wage Act aims to gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025. In recent years, some cities and states have taken steps to increase local minimum wage statutes, there are still 21 states where the minimum wage remains frozen at $7.25.

The National Employment Law Project predicts that by 2024, a single adult will need to earn at least $15 an hour, a gross income of roughly $31,200 per year, to achieve an adequate standard of living nationwide. In some areas such as New York and California, this is already the minimum required.

While just 2.1% of all hourly workers make the federal minimum wage, many of whom are teenagers, there's a significant portion of U.S. adults who still fall short of a wage that would sustain a family of four at the poverty threshold. And roughly 36% of U.S. workers earn less than $15 an hour, according to estimates from the EPI. Research shows women and minorities are disproportionately affected by the minimum wage issue.

What happens next

Democratic lawmakers have tried to increase the minimum wage for years, but the most recent bill, the Raise the Wage Act, introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) in January has gotten the furthest. The bill, which now has 203 cosponsors, is set for a House floor vote on Thursday morning.

But the legislation, even if it passes the House, is far from a sure thing. Predictive intelligence firm Skopos Labs estimates the Raise the Wage Act has a 24% chance of being enacted.

Many opponents of the bill say they're concerned raising the minimum wage to $15 may cause significant job loss. A report from the Congressional Budget Office released last week found that a mandatory $15 minimum wage may eliminate as many as 3.7 million jobs across the U.S. because companies will look to cut costs. Additionally, the report projected that real income — the compensation and purchasing power you have after taking into account inflation — would fall by about $16 billion for families above the poverty line, which would reduce their total income by about 0.1% due, in part, to consumers potentially paying higher prices.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a conservative business lobby group, sent a letter to House members saying the organization had "serious concerns" about the Raise the Wage Act. It added that while it's "willing to work with members of Congress to develop a legislative package that includes an increase guided by economic conditions, $15 per hour is not that number, and the Raise the Wage Act is not that legislation."

That same CBO report also noted, however, that a $15 federal minimum is estimated to increase wages for as many as 27 million Americans and potentially lift as many as 1.3 million families out of poverty.

"The CBO's report comes to a clear conclusion: The benefits of gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour over five years far outweighs any potential costs to American workers," Scott said during a call with reporters last week.

The EPI estimates that the benefit could be even wider, calculating that 33.5 million workers would see increased wages. Of those workers, the National Women's Law Center estimates that one in three working women would directly receive a raise. And 43% of single mothers in the U.S. would see an increased income for their families, the EPI calculates.

Moving beyond the minimum is worth fighting for

Jessica Davis, 27, who worked for years at minimum wage or near-minimum wage jobs, says she's had to work hard for every penny she's earned at these types of jobs.

"They will make you bend over backwards and it's crazy how much work they give you when you're making that much money," Davis tells CNBC Make It. Davis, who completed some college and has $14,000 in student loan debt, says the last minimum wage job she held was working at Dollar General outside Nashville, Tennessee.

She worked at the store for about nine months in 2016, and spent her entire 8-to-10-hour shifts on her feet. The store was routinely understaffed, Davis says, which meant she was trying to juggle checking out customers, managing the inventory and keeping the store clean. "It's physical," she says, adding each shift was a workout.

"They wanted me to run over to this area, open up boxes and put out stock, and then run to register every time there was a customer. And they had a customer every five to 10 minutes," she says. "My job now is hard, but it's nothing like the [minimum wage] jobs I used to work."

A spokeswoman for Dollar General tells CNBC Make It that the company prioritizes investing in its employees and regularly promotes from within, as well as provides opportunities to help workers realize their career aspirations.

"We believe career opportunities, our competitive wages and benefits and the engaging environment we offer that is rooted in our mission of 'serving others' allows us to remain an employer of choice," the company said in a statement.

There's no way one person could pay for bills every month with a minimum wage job
Jessica Davis

While working at Dollar General, Davis brought home about $1,000 a month. At the time, she split rent and utilities with her boyfriend, but housing costs still ate up about $580 a month — more than 50% of her income. There was little left for extras, let alone big life events such as getting married and starting a family. "We would be married, but that costs too," Davis says, adding that she'd like to have a small wedding at some point. But juggling the costs and planning associated with a wedding just wasn't feasible. "Things like that get put on the back burner."

Davis managed to find a better paying opportunity when a regular customer at Dollar General befriended her and recommended her for a tech support role. She applied and got the job, which came with a significant raise: She now earns $17.95 an hour. The higher salary allowed her to focus on herself and even dream a little she is planning on going back to college in January.

At the end of the day, having a support system is critical if you're going to make ends meet on $7.25 an hour. Both Davis and Nicholson credit their friends and family, rather than employers, for helping them survive on minimum wage.

"Nobody can make it by themselves living on minimum wage," Davis says. "There's no way one person could pay for bills every month with a minimum wage job."

Check out: Full-time minimum wage workers cannot afford a 2-bedroom rental anywhere in the US

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