Growing Pains: The Changes and Challenges of Working for Minimum Wage

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Growing Pains: The Changes and Challenges of Working for Minimum Wage


by Myra Johnson
Board of Directors, YWCA Houston

Myra Johnson
Myra Johnson

I was the typical 16-year-old. Wanted everything my friends owned but didn’t have a dime. We’d moved to a new neighborhood and I attended a newly constructed, top performing high school. As if defeated in battle, I tugged my mom’s ankles and whined about kids with cars, how everyone, even teachers, wore name brand clothing and explained that I needed to see the movie “Titanic” because it was educational. Next thing I knew we were in the car. Super stoked about this surprise trip. I wore a cute outfit in case I saw anyone from school at the mall, of course! We pulled up to Rock a Billy Cafe, a diner down the street. I thought, “Score, this begging tactic works! I am getting a strawberry milkshake, too!” We walked to the counter and my mom asked, “Are you hiring?” My chin dropped. I thought we were headed to the mall!

I remember the discipline required to complete homework assignments before working evening shifts at Rock a Billy Cafe. It was fun to figure out who the decision makers were at the tables I served. I learned to create quick emotional connections by asking questions that gave the person an opportunity to brag. Over time, I discovered that humbly admitting an error and asking for the opportunity to correct it was much easier than giving the “Wow! How did that happen?! Ugh! That stupid kitchen!” spiel. Guests would stare me down as I returned their plate to the kitchen line, flailing my hands and snapping my neck while secretly begging for forgiveness for screwing up yet another order. What an exhausting mission. Finally, I learned a lot from my coworkers; a few college students, an older and middle-aged mom. Some people worked full time, others worked part time. It didn’t really matter, we all just worked hard.

Spreading my tips on the bed was my favorite part of the night. I set some aside to deposit into a savings account. The rest was designated for “good times.” In 1998, a gallon of gas cost $1.15 and a movie ticket was $4.69. When I went to the store for my mom, milk was $1.79 and a carton of eggs cost 88 cents. Things were quite different then economically.

Dow Jones columnist Al Lewis says that we are in an “Invisible Depression.” One out of seven Americans is on food stamps. There is a shadow of inventory of homes and commercial real estate that banks haven’t yet foreclosed on.  Those who have returned to school to gain more education are counted as gainfully employed. What happens when the 99 weeks of unemployment runs out? Last year, four out of five hourly workers were 25 years and older.

Now, working a minimum wage job doesn’t account for much, whether full- or part-time.  Gas prices have sky rocketed. Food is much more expensive than last year. Due to inflation, we have people that are employed (going to work, paying taxes, making positive contributions to the economy, working 40 hours a week) and still not making enough money to move themselves out of poverty.

I asked friends and mentors from different socioeconomic backgrounds to share thoughts on the issue. At times, the air became thick and the conversation tense. I heard strong emotional undertones. Either they didn’t care because the issue didn’t impact them or they were against the increase for the following reasons:

  1. Minimum wage jobs are supposed to be “launch pad” positions, not long-term careers. People should get education and training. This will result in better jobs and higher pay. People living in poverty need to get themselves out of their situation, instead of asking for handouts. Everyone has it hard, success is not easy.
  2. The increase in wage will cause mass layoffs and stimulate inflation.
  3. The employee has all the power to either negotiate wages or turn down the job offer. Employees should know their value and not accept anything less.

I understood each point and hadn’t formulated my own opinion yet. I felt like I needed to do some research first. I learned that:

The federal minimum wage was signed into law in 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt, at the height of the Great Depression. Its stated purpose was to keep America’s workers out of poverty, and increase consumer purchasing power in order to stimulate the economy.

Enacting the federal minimum wage wasn’t about giving handouts. It wasn’t about “normalcy” or creating expectations for what age was socially acceptable for minimum aged workers. Its purpose was to make sure that if in fact a person was actually working, they weren’t impoverished. Additionally, interestingly enough, it was about stimulating the economy and this conversation is oh so familiar…

According to a June 6 New York Times article, both President Obama and Mitt Romney agree on one reason why the federal minimum wage should be increased: “Both men support a mechanism that would automatically adjust the federal minimum in proportion to increases in the Consumer Price Index.”  It had been about 10 years since I took Economics 101 at the University of Kentucky, so this didn’t resonate at first glance.  The CPI measures changes in price level of good and services bought by households. Everyone has a certain amount of purchasing power which is the number of good/services you can buy. “If your monthly income stays the same, but the price level (of goods) increases, the purchasing power of that income falls.” In short, if we have more income, we will spend more. And most women out there are saying, “Amen!” According to Elizabeth Duke, a member of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve, “Women account for 80 percent of all consumer purchasing decisions, making 93 percent of food purchases and 65 percent of auto purchases.”

My next inclination was to research how much people were getting paid across the U.S. Do any states link CPI to wage increases? If so, how is their economy performing?

There are 10 states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri., Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont. and Washington) that have minimum wages linked to a consumer price index. As a result of this linkage, the minimum wages in these states are normally increased each year, generally around January 1.

Vermont is a great point of reference from this list. The state’s minimum wage is $8.46. It also ranks in the top 10 for Best Performing GDP per person and receives an added “gold star” in my book for  having a whopping 4.7 percent unemployment rate.

There are 18 states (and D.C.) with minimum wage rates set higher than the federal minimum. When you compare each states’ GDP performance, minimum wage and unemployment rates, those with wages of roughly $8.00-$9.00 performed best last year. Massachusetts pays $8.00 per hour, ranked #7 in the Top 10 performers for Real GDP per person in 2011, the states unemployment rate is six percent. Their economies are strong. There are only four states pay below the minimum wage (Arkansas, Georgia, Minnesota and Wyoming).

For my final bit of research, I began to study the demographics of the hourly worker. Reviewing the Labor Force Statistics Survey from 2011 was an eye opener.

  • 60 percent of the entire workforce is paid on an hourly basis.
  • 62 percent of these workers are women.
  • About 4 million workers make at or below the minimum wage.
  • The majority of these workers reside in the South (Georgia, Mississippi  and Texas).
  • Half of these workers are ages 16-25, the other half are 25 and older.
  • In every ethnic background, the number of women making at or below the minimum wage was higher, sometime percentages doubled.

This pay inequity is severe. How are women supporting themselves and their families?

During a conversation with a mentor of mine, Gordon Quan, former mayor pro tem of the city of Houston and co-chairman of Foster, Quan, LLP said, “This is about paying a living wage. Workers must be able to afford to live.”

I share the thoughts of a friend of mine in public service – we must continue to inspire women to recognize the assets they bring to the work place and encourage every woman to pursue her own dreams for a better tomorrow. I encourage women across America to reach out to their local YWCA and look into educational support and child care options. I am honored to be a part of this organization. It offers so many programs to support women in their fight for equality, independence and self-awareness.

I don’t claim to have all the answers or solutions on this topic. When I made minimum wage many years ago it was for fun. Now, due to inflation, we have women of all ages scraping to get by. Minimum wage should place workers above poverty level. This has nothing to do with experience. Over time we gain that and the additional skills necessary to get raises or, if we so choose, to apply for different positions. I end with a quote from Catherine Flowers, an entrepreneurial and community development powerhouse in Houston, who said, “An increase in the minimum wage is not generous justice but a right that all working families are entitled too. Far too many families are led by women who struggle to simply feed their children, and an increase would not only bring them closer to a living wage but would assist to ensure fair distribution of equity. Equity is not a respecter of person and in this millennium fair should be fair.” If you are reading this article and are a woman, you understand the demands and challenges we face in life. Take action now, for every woman.

Myra Johnson is a newly elected member of the Board of Directors at YWCA Houston. As a business development executive, she is contracted by companies across the U.S. and abroad to conceptualize and execute strategic initiatives that enhance corporate image, generate revenue, encourage community involvement and establish profitable relationships. Myra was a recipient of the “Stellar Communicators Award” from Texas Southern University and was recently recognized by the city of Houston for collaborative fundraising efforts. A graduate of the University of Kentucky and proud mother of a seven-year-old girl, Gabrielle, she passionately stands for wellness of the mind, body and spirit, encouraging women to reach a place of wholeness and peace through service, methodical introspection and gaining knowledge.