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Living On Minimum Wage Is Hardly Living At All

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Last week, I tried living on just $42 worth of groceries. The endeavor was part of the "Minimum Wage Grocery Challenge," where state legislators across the country are learning what it's like to face the hardships working families face every day. According to the Department of Agriculture, a single male with no children living on minimum wage can expect to spend approximately $6 per day on groceries, if he goes with the thriftiest options available. So that's precisely what I did.

I will be the first to tell you that it was nearly unlivable. On an average day, it's hard to make $6 cover a basic lunch, let alone three meals. I found that the most affordable foods were almost exclusively those with the least nutritional value. When you're earning above minimum wage, $4 cartons of lettuce and $4 pounds of ground beef may not seem like much, but with just $6 per day to spend on groceries, you realize quickly that preservative-laden frozen and shelf meals are the only way to get by. It's common knowledge that opting for the unhealthy options will undoubtedly mean health concerns down the road, but they're the only choice at hand for those living on minimum wage.

And that's just looking at groceries at face value. The fact that many minimum wage workers can't afford a car or gas to fuel it means that many are forced to depend on sometimes faulty public transit, and those meals become harder and harder to come by. Lucky for me, I live in a community where grocery stores are just around the corner, but many minimum wage earners live in food deserts where grocery stores are all but nonexistent and the McDonald's or convenience store up the street is the only food source within walking distance.

In the Michigan Senate, my Democratic colleagues and I have sponsored resolutions calling on the U.S. Congress to restore federal extended unemployment benefits and increase the minimum wage, and even forced a vote on these resolutions on the Senate floor just a couple weeks ago. The more I learn about what it truly means to attempt to get by on the scare resources that minimum wage permits, the more wholeheartedly I understand that it is simply not enough.

While I believe that allowing people the opportunity to cross the poverty line into a manageable lifestyle is reason enough to raise the minimum wage, doing so also benefits our society far beyond the individual level. Extra dollars in the pockets of our hardworking families means an investment in local economies and the small businesses where they're likely to spend those dollars. The businesses that employ workers at a livable wage benefit too. Paul Saginaw, co-owner of Zingerman's Delicatessen in Ann Arbor has stated that "Paying entry wages our employees can live on has contributed to our profitability and our annual compounded growth rate of 10 percent."

Minimum wage has proven to be an increasingly inadequate stipend for any individual or family to live on. Raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do on a human, social and economic level, and it's time that the U.S. Congress acted swiftly to make it happen.