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Life for the Working Poor

Low wage workers take part in a protest organized by the Coalition for a Real Minimum Wage outside the offices of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, May 30, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Segar

This is not the first time the media has portrayed the real life of the working poor and just how little their wages purchases. But it’s important to hear these stories, not so that we feel bad, but so that we do something about it and force up wages.

Joyce Barnes sometimes pauses, leaving the grocery store. A crowd shifts past, loaded up with goodies. Barnes pictures herself, walking out with big steaks and pork chops, some crabmeat.

“But I’m not the one,” she says. Inside her bags are bread, butter, coffee, a bit of meat and canned tuna — a weekly grocery budget of $25.

The shopping has to fit between her two jobs. Barnes, 62, is a home care worker near Richmond, Va. In the mornings, she takes care of a man who lost both his legs, then hustles off to help someone who’s lost use of one side of his body in a stroke. The jobs pay $9.87 and $8.50 an hour. Barnes gets home around 9 p.m., then wakes at 5 a.m. to do it all over again.

It’s been like this all her life. Virginia lawmakers last month for the first time approved five sick days to some home health care workers. Paid vacation is a dream. “Work, work, work” is a ring tone one of her grandchildren set for Barnes: “She said, ‘Nanny, when you call me, I know it’s you, because that’s all you do is work.’ “

When experts study low-wage jobs, workers such as Montooth and Barnes are actually often left out, because traditionally, labor data focus on the “prime working age” of 25 to 54. Martha Ross from the Brookings Institution decided to expand her research to workers 18 to 64, including part-timers — and was shocked at her discovery.

Adjusting for regional differences in the cost of living, Ross found 53 million low-wage workers in America, with median earnings of $10.22 an hour, or $17,950 a year.

“This is a huge swath of our labor market,” Ross says. “It really made me think about the kinds of jobs that we’re creating.”

My wife happened to go to the local Stop and Shop the day the stimulus checks hit. She said the shelves were ransacked, especially items such as meat. It didn’t take much to realize what was going on–people actually had money to buy food and were taking advantage while they still had it. That so many of the people trying to hold on are above 54 (and really above 64) only goes further to demonstrate what a critically important–and moral–issue it is to raise the minimum wage, not by a smidgen, but by a lot. $15 is, quite frankly, far too low.

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