THE BLOG
10/30/2013 06:27 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Living on $8 an Hour: White Elephants in the Room

As the President of In Every Story, a social business that helps low income workers advance towards self sufficiency through temporary employment, I'm spending the months of October, November and December living on $8 in transitional housing. So here I am to talk about the first month, what it's been like, and the "White Elephants" in the room.

White Elephant #1:

This hasn't been a sacrifice.

When people ask how it's going I tell them, "Great! I love living on $8 an hour," which is true. I'm frugal by nature. I love efficiency almost as much as myself. It's just -- for better or worse -- a part of who I am, and frankly one of my stronger qualities (there's a negative side to my efficiency DNA as well...). I've purchased a bike and haven't spent a penny on gas (I haven't been using my vehicle as part of the experiment). Turns out I'd forgotten how much I love riding a bike. Every week I buy breakfast bars, spinach, eggs, cheese, pasta and pasta sauce, and maybe a few other things that are buy one get one free, and that gets me through the week for roughly $40 on food. I love being simple. I hate menus at restaurants with more than three options. I still drink coffee every morning at my favorite coffee shop (where I am now), and I've located a Mrs. Pac Man machine two blocks from my house -- meaning I can spend $.50 for roughly 45 minutes of enthralling entertainment. I've read five books this month! Turns out if you do those things and nothing else you too can live on $8 an hour.

I've had to clear my calendar, a lot. The first week I realized that there was no way I was going to make appointments all over town like I used to. This, too, has been a great joy. I needed to slow down. I've also missed out on a lot of events that would have cost money that before I would have gone to. Turning those events down and having an excuse why? That as well has brought me great joy. 

I'd recommend living on $8 an hour to anybody. I don't mean to make light of many who struggle living on this wage, because there are many, but I do think there is much to be said for a simple life.

White Elephant #2:

Being poor is expensive. 

Time is money. I can see how the fact that the buses don't run on schedule in Charleston make it difficult to make interviews and impossible to plan your day. I've experienced this. To compensate I go to the bus stop half an hour to an hour earlier than when I expect the bus to get there and give myself a cushion of half an hour to an hour on the other side in case it's late. I take a book with me, go to the meeting, and I can't really plan a second meeting for that day unless the second appointment knows I may have to cancel.

I'm confident the local bus company and drivers are doing all that they can, but since only poor people ride the bus (the bus doesn't even accept a debit card) chances are this won't get better soon (until I'm elected king for the day). Since bus routes don't run on time low income workers in Charleston really shouldn't apply for jobs where they both a) have to take the bus and b) their employer expects them to be there on time. That's a severely limiting factor for their opportunities of gainful employment.

Gandhi believed that the only way things like this would change is if people like himself -- from more privileged positions -- put themselves in the place of lower class citizens and then fought to make things right.

White Elephant #3: 

White elephants are ultimately the things in the room everybody knows exist but talking about them could get uncomfortable. Successful organizations and people talk about them and take them on. Unsuccessful ones pretend they don't exist when it's plain to everybody that they do. Staff gets discouraged, grows cynical, and ultimately the place walks off a cliff.

The biggest white elephant prompted by living on $8 an hour is this: Are we really helping people live better stories?

At In Every Story we've identified a few parts of our model that frankly make us question whether or not we are making the difference we set out to make. This has required a lot of humility, vulnerability, courage, and willingness to change. One thing none of us are content with is how the Hope Fund is operating. Currently we're paying more than other day labor agencies but our workers don't seem to be saving and making the progress we want them to. This is a problem because I had a bike repair that cost $51 that I wasn't expecting, and as I waited wondering if this was the best use of my money and realizing I didn't really have a choice, I thought about the obvious: For low-income workers having a cash reserve is critical. We've recognized that unless the Hope Fund promotes saving it's really only having part of the effect we want it to. 

So living on $8 an hour has forced us to address a White Elephant or two that may have not been addressed as quickly otherwise. When you think about it, every president should be using the things they espouse, putting themselves in the shoes of the people that have to wear them. And that, of course, has been the point. Stay tuned for more and feel free to go to mint.com and use the username "test@ieslaborservices.com" and password "pass4test" to see how I've been living on $8 an hour.

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