Friday, December 16, 2005

Making Minimum Wage

Starting Over would be challenging for anyone, but what if you had to exist on a minimum wage job? One reporter took the plunge to see what it would be like.

I'm three weeks into a monthlong project aimed at showing what life is like for people starting over in Passaic County: the thousands of new immigrants who arrive each year, or people who've lost jobs. What kind of work and housing exist for those who need both, fast? This is my assignment: Find a job and a place to live and write about the experience.

Last year, 85,069 Passaic County residents - 17 percent of the county's population - lived below the federal poverty line, as compared with 722,300 - 8.5 percent — statewide. Legal Services of New Jersey's Poverty Research Institute estimates that a single person living in Passaic County needs to make $9.64 an hour to meet all his or her needs. Can I do that?


I kept a job and a roof over my head and my belly mostly full - a life of minimalist survival. I couldn't have supported a child or taken a vacation, a day off or a sick day. To do better, I'd need to do what so many, like Julio, do: work a second job. An illness or work slowdown could have plunged me into homelessness.

At the office, I put my bags down and hug my colleagues. In the weeks ahead, I'll find I'm still scraping by at the paper, but it's different than temping in Passaic. I can eat when I want to, see my girlfriend and friends, talk to my co-workers instead of laboring in silence. I feel connected to the world, and that makes a huge difference.

Every so often I'll hear what a person needs to be making an hour just to pay for rent and basics. Seldom is it minimum wage. Yet, if they raise minimum wages, I don't get a raise to compensate.

The other thing I'd like to know is how many of those minimum wage workers are teenagers? Before Congress raises the minimum wage laws, I hope that they look at that statistic also. If 50% or more are under the age of 18, we really don't need to have minimum wage raised. The 19 and above set need to take advantage of existing programs to train for better jobs.

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