This post has been updated.
We live in a country where people working full time year round can still live in poverty, and where many of our politicians have been desensitized by the statistics or simply don’t care. In Miami-Dade, over half a million people are living in poverty, and according to a county study, 60% earn less than a living income.
That’s why I spent the last week living on an $85 budget as part of the minimum wage challenge, an effort by the Service Employees International Union to bring awareness to the struggles and sacrifices working families make every day.
The challenge calculates that after taxes and housing expenses, workers will have $85 to spend for the rest of the week on food, transportation, gas, groceries, and any other expenditures.
On the first day, reality set in quickly. I couldn’t afford to drive my 2010 Prius that week. The car payment and insurance alone breaks the bank. My AT&T iPhone plan is pretty expensive ($100/month), but I couldn’t go without my phone, so I had to deduct $25 right off the bat.
On the second day, I had to get from Downtown to Miami Lakes using public transportation, roughly a two hour expedition. Luckily, my friend offered to give me a ride if I could meet him at his job on 60th and Biscayne. I was very thankful that he was going in that direction, but I was frustrated by my dependence on others.
On the way back, I got the full two and a half hour experience. First, I walked a mile to the bus stop, jumped on the 54, transferred to the Metrorail and then to the Metromover for a total of $2.85. I couldn’t help but think about all the things I could be doing with my time.
On the third day, I failed the challenge miserably. I had to use my car that day for work. I had to go to Biscayne & 22nd, attend a meeting in Miami Springs, go up to the SEIU office in Miami Lakes, go to Doral for another meeting, pick up groceries, and then head over to Coconut Grove to meet coworkers. It’s impossible to do all that without a car. I could have asked my brother to borrow his car, but I didn’t know exactly what time I would be back.
Even with cheating on transportation, I still ran out of money after groceries.
The entire time I was at Presidente Supermarket, I kept thinking of my parents, who worked multiple low wage jobs just to make ends meet. As a kid, I took so much of that for granted. I never had to make the hard decisions on what to buy and what we couldn’t afford. I never had to watch every nickel, clip coupons, or take extra ketchup and mayonnaise from McDonald’s. My parents made those sacrifices for me.
At the checkout line, I had to tell the cashier to remove the cat food, peanut butter, and grape jelly from my total because I went over. It was an embarrassing moment that happens to millions of working families each day.
On the last two days, I put my final $3 into gas, having already resigned to using my car, and I had to explain to a friend that I could no longer join her for The New Tropic’s Arts and Drafts because I had run out of money.
All in all, the challenge was a painful reminder of what it was like to grow up poor.
The challenge didn’t capture the full experience — the anger, resentment, and personal deep-seated embarrassment of living in poverty. As a friend pointed out to me, this can only be experienced when you feel the never ending uncertainty of poverty, of not knowing when you’ll be able to pay your light bill, and when going to the doctor or dentist becomes a luxury you can’t afford.
It has, however, helped participants get a glimpse of the struggles of the working poor. In the past month, over 100 elected officials and community leaders have taken the challenge and not one has completed it successfully.
We can do better, Miami. No one who works full time should live in poverty.