It is not easy to admit that you are not up to a challenge that hundreds of your constituents face each day, but that’s what happened to me last week. ProgressVA sponsored the “Live the Wage Challenge” asking elected officials, community leaders, advocates and everyday citizens to walk in the shoes of a minimum wage worker by living on a minimum wage budget for one week. The point of the activity was to help others understand what life is like for low-wage workers and why raising the wage is important to working families and to the economy.
Directions for the simulation provided each participant with a weekly budget of $77 which represents the weekly wages of a full-time worker making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour minus average taxes and average housing expenses. Even that budget is generous for the Northern Virginia region where housing expenses alone would wipe out the entire paycheck. For the activity, I needed only to figure out how to pay for my meals, groceries, transportation and recreational spending. The rules were very generous in not requiring me to cover the expenses of family members or work travel. The rules however did require me to eat only those items of groceries or eating out paid for within the budget. I was required to record my expenses to see how I made it through the week.
The fact of the matter is that I did not make it through the first day. It was clear to me from the beginning that I was not going to be able to make ends meet. Yet, people in my community and throughout Virginia have to face these challenges every day. The simulation included a day when a child in your household gets sick. What do you do? You cannot stay home for you need to work every day to get the income. You cannot afford a babysitter or a visit to a medical clinic.
I have been conscious of the plight of low-income people, but this activity brought home to me once again how tough life is for some people. Several years ago I was paired with a woman living in subsidized housing with her young daughter who had multiple handicaps, and I tried to live on a budget of public assistance that she had. I failed that challenge as well. And I grew up in a home with limited income. I admire the resourcefulness of persons in these situations and their ability to live without many of the things we consider basic.
Last legislative session I introduced a bill to raise the minimum wage in Virginia. It was supported by interfaith, religious and labor groups. It was unfortunately opposed by business groups including the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and much to my disappointment the Fairfax and Reston Chambers of Commerce. I will introduce the bill again in 2016. For those who have opposed the bill in the past, I hope you will go to #LiveTheWageVA and tell me and others how you would meet the challenge!