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New Study: You Can't Live on Minimum Wage
Detroit Free Press
L. L. Brasier

May 31, 2011
View the Original Article


Cameo Thomas of Jackson works two jobs as a nursing home aide to support her 4-year-old twin sons. One job pays $9.50 an hour, the other $13.05. Sometimes she works 60 hours a week to make ends meet -- hard physical labor, most of it on her feet.

"Sometimes I get off work and think, 'Man, I'm going to need a new pair of shoes,' " the 23-year-old said.

Working harder and longer may not be enough to support a family in Michigan, particularly for employees in low-paying jobs such as retail sales, clerical work and home health care, according to a new study released today.

The Basic Economic Security Tables for Michigan, a study that analyzes the cost of essential needs for singles and families across Michigan, found the cost of providing basic necessities -- such as shelter, food and transportation -- far exceeds minimum wage and the paychecks of people working full-time in low-paying job categories.

Among the findings:

• Single Michigan residents without children must earn $12.24 an hour to support themselves.

• A mother with two young children -- like Thomas -- needs $24.49 an hour to house, clothe and feed her children. That's three times the minimum wage.

The report was done by Wider Opportunities for Women and the Michigan League for Human Services.

"It's staggering," said Gilda Jacobs, president of the league. Jacobs noted that although the state's unemployment rate is dropping, the number of requests for food assistance is climbing because many of the new jobs being created are low-paying.

"So if you put $60 worth of gas in your car, you can't buy your kid milk," she said. "With these kinds of salaries, you can't support your kids, you can't buy them clothes, save for college, or have money on hand for a car repair."

The detailed report helps explain why families often come up short at the end of the month when it's time to pay bills.

"The final income tally can be a bit of a sticker shock," said Matt Unrath of Wider Opportunities for Women, the advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that created the report using public data. "But when you go expense by expense, it makes sense. Whenever I make a presentation on this, families will say, 'Wow, so it's not my fault.' With these incomes, it's nearly impossible to cover the expenses, even if you worked 80 or 90 hours a week."

Herman Proby, who counsels low-income families at the Baldwin Center in Pontiac, spent a recent afternoon with a single mother of three who makes $7.54 an hour as a telemarketer.

"That's $880 a month," Proby said. "How do you live on that? When I ask her, she says there aren't any jobs out there. And there aren't. We're seeing a lot of people who are working hard, but not getting very far."

For Thomas, though, the future is looking brighter. She completed three years of classes and financial counseling in the Michigan $AVE$ program for low-income families and learned how to budget. Through the program, administered by Jackson's Community Action Agency, she has saved enough money to put a down payment soon on a house. The $AVE$ program matches her savings.

And she's continuing to work toward a college degree in criminal justice so she can some day work as a probation officer. Along the way, she's raising her sons, who are already looking forward to a birthday party in December, when they turn 5.

"Oh boy," she said. "I better start budgeting for that now."