They say money can’t buy happiness.
But say that to someone who can’t put food on their table, and they might disagree.
When I was 17 years old, I was kicked out of the house during my junior year of high school.
At the time, I was lucky enough to have someone to stay with, until I could turn 18 and work full-time.
Right after the beginning of my senior year, my 18th birthday arrived, and I started taking on 40 hours a week at my fast food job. Of course, it was only October, and I still had most of the school year to go—but my housing options were very limited at that point, and if I wanted to finish school on time, I needed to find somewhere else to live.
Despite the sh*ttiness of my situation, I did have another stroke of luck with the cost of living in the area. For a very small, poorly-maintained apartment, I found a place to live for just $415 a month.
Making $7.50 an hour (which was 10 cents above my state’s minimum wage and 25 cents above the federal minimum at the time), I brought home roughly $450 every two weeks after taxes—approximately $900 or so every month.
So let’s pause here and do some quick math on the expenses:
**Monthly Income: $900
– Rent: $415
– Electricity: $85 (averaged out)
– Phone: $60
– Internet: $40 (Being a senior in high school at school/work all day during library hours, this was a necessity.)
– Car Insurance: $85 (Most basic coverage available.)
– Gasoline: $80
– Food: $100
– Hygiene/Household Needs: $25
**Total Leftover: $10
Definitely not ideal, but possibly doable if I’m really careful with my money and don’t get sick, right?
At first glance, maybe—but these calculations are based on some very basic numbers and include some factors that might not be initially considered.
First, notice there is no car payment. Another thing I lucked out on was having my own car. Before my circumstances took a turn for the worst, I managed to find an old beat up Neon on Craigslist for $700. Fortunately, I had a place to stay and very few expenses before turning 18, which made saving the money possible.
This piece of luck cannot be overstated—without a car, or public transportation in my area, I would’ve been S.O.L. when it came to keeping my job.
Another thing to notice is this budget is just for me, alone. Regardless of how many times the overused notion of, “If you don’t want kids, don’t get pregnant,” is said—the reality is that people do still get pregnant and have kids. We can sit here and point fingers, or we can look at the reality in front of us. Should kids go hungry because mom and dad weren’t financially ready to have a baby? Regardless of their circumstances, should parents really have to choose between finishing school and paying the bills?
After I graduated from high school, I was lucky (again) in the fact that I had the opportunity to go to college. I graduated from a decently-funded high school that offered adequate academic resources, so I found an open door through scholarships, Pell grants and federal loans. Four years (and $40,000 later) my bachelor’s degree led to an entry-level analyst position, with moderate income.
Today, my life is certainly not luxurious in wealth or material possessions, but having once lived on $10,000 a year, it sometimes seems luxurious in the way my needs are met and the way time for living is afforded to me.
My bills are paid. There’s food in my fridge. I have a warm bed to sleep in every night. And if I get a flat tire, I don’t have to choose between eating dinner and getting it fixed.
I work 40 hours a week, but I still have time for me.
After work, I have time for grad school. On the weekends, I have time for friends. (Or family. Or homework. Or exercise.)
And I even get sick leave and vacation days that allow me to recover from the flu, or take a break without putting my entire livelihood on the line.
Yes, after once having been in a very different situation—sometimes my life definitely seems luxurious to me.
But is it?
I work hard. My needs are met. And I still have time leftover to experience the only life I have, after counting the 90 hours a week I spend working and sleeping.
To many people—yes, this is luxury.
To many others—no, this is just something they take for granted.
To me—this is a piece of happiness. This is the piece of happiness that a good job and a livable wage made possible. And regardless of you want to call it—I am thankful.
We often hear, “There are so many opportunities available to work your way up in the USA! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps like I had to!”
And when I talk about raising the minimum wage, many people use examples of situations like mine to say, “Look! This person managed to crawl out of poverty. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to do the same thing.”
But let me tell you something:
I was lucky.
Yes—by busting my ass, I managed to support myself and slowly move up. But, even with all of my hard work, there was still a whole lot of luck and situational factors involved that are impossible to ignore.
Americans are known for the pride we have in our country.
I mean, we’re the United States of America—where people believe in freedom and justice and equality. We believe in opportunity and hard work.
But tell me—shouldn’t hard work lead to opportunity for all of us, instead of just those of us who are lucky?
What if one of the factors in my situation didn’t work out as they did? What if you took away me having somewhere to live or added another life to the equation?
Does that mean I should’ve been punished and unable to reach the place I am right now? Does it mean I shouldn’t have the opportunity to pay my bills, and still be able to invest in myself and have time to take care of life outside of work?
No, I don’t think so.
I think we should all be able to go to bed at night knowing where our next meal is coming from.
To me, that is not a luxury.
I think we should all be able to have time to live. For ourselves. For our children. Just because.
To me, that is not luxury.
In this country, there are people who have billions of dollars, own dozens of homes and cars and spend thousands on their appearance. To me, that is luxury.
And before you tell me I’m “just jealous” of such people, let me be clear: I am not.
But I am annoyed.
I’m annoyed in the fact that we give billionaires financial breaks, in the form of millions of dollars, yet we bitch about giving someone food stamps—or freak out if they decide to “indulge” in a box of Oreos.
I’m annoyed at the fact that while many see paid vacation time and an emergency savings fund as a luxury, there are people with billions of dollars sitting untouched in the bank when they die.
I’m annoyed at the fact that we claim to be a country of freedom and justice and equality—but we don’t see how much freedom and justice and equality are truly determined by factors other than hard work and being born in America.
Did you know that many homeless people in this country are employed?
A lot of people argue that minimum wage jobs are expected to be for teens and students, but the reality is that an increasing number of minimum wage workers are adults with families.
The ideas that such people should set higher goals, go to school, and/or practice better family planning are good ones—in theory.
Realistically, many people don’t have the same opportunities others do, for many different reasons—and regardless of what a person plans to do, we all know that’s often not how life plays out.
I managed to work my way up, despite an abundance of personal and financial struggles, so I do know there are exceptions to what I’m saying—myself as an example—but, I can also recognize that there were a lot of factors working in my favor, that aren’t there for many others.
To assume that all Americans who start on minimum wage have the ability to end up with a job that pays a livable wage is very unrealistic and ignores the realities of generational poverty and the working poor. Furthermore, it fails to recognize the fact that even if that were possible—we would still need folks to make our pizzas. Stock our grocery shelves. Clean our restrooms.
Should these necessities we all benefit from really be attached to a degrading wage that forces people to live in poverty?
In the years I worked in fast food, my job at that time required a much different skill set than my current position, which a college degree got me. However, I busted my ass no less working in the food industry than I do today.
Skill set and effort are very different, and if you’re putting full-time effort into any job, I believe you should be able to live a happy life, buy (an adequate amount of healthy) food, and pay rent without applying for food assistance.
In the words of Senator Bernie Sanders, “Nobody who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.”
Author: Stacey Johnston
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Photo: Flickr/401(K) 2012