I was surprised by how quickly, and unconsciously, the author’s mind set switched to being like that of her temporary peers. She entered the experience with an automatic out. She was an educated white-collar professional who chose to experiment with the minimum wage, knowing that she would return to her upper-middle class life, after 30 days. Despite these realities, the author quickly became not just lower class in situation but also in outlook. She came to view her friends as exotic and decadent in their use of money. She developed a servile attitude towards her managers rather than standing up for her beliefs. She took on the parts of the minimum-wage culture related to hopelessness and being stuck in an impossible situation. I was surprised by how quickly circumstance could overcome a lifetime of socialization and experience.
My only experience with a minimum wage job was as a cashier. Fortunately, my management did not take advantage of us, despite the store being located in a poor neighborhood. The employees had few other options and the customers had low expectations, but we were still treated far better than the author was at any of her jobs.
The circumstances that led me to this job were similar to the author’s. My job was vaguely self-imposed. It was an experiment in what my life would be like with only a high school education. I had thought that I did not want to face the challenges of continuing in school. This job persuaded me that I should continue. Fortunately, my family supported me through this and could continue to do so temporarily. I did not have the face the possibility that I would have immediately be entirely self-supporting. Similarly to the author, I entered this situation from a different status and as an experimenter rather than as a necessity.
Despite much thought, I cannot figure out a way to define the living wage. I have never had to cobble together a livable income the way the author had to. I feel as though having never faced these challenges, it is not my place to decide how to set a living wage. I find myself only able to come up with difficulty in defining it.
To start with, how do we decide what the absolute minimum is? I know that the local cost of living, the cost of nutritious food, family size and the ideal maximum number of hours worked have to play a role. But how do these all interact? Can changing the minimum wage and redefining a living wage account for all those problems?
Also, what demographic assumptions must we make? Does a living wage assume a family of four with two adults and two children, just as the poverty line does? But that premise does not account for current realities about lower class families. With the feminization of poverty, more families living below the poverty line consist of single-parents with multiple children. Does the living wage need to account for one income rather than two?