09/03/2014 05:37 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

Living the Wage: Lessons on Privilege and the Unexpected

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Since graduating college, I have never thought twice about filling up my tank. On occasion, I might look at the final price and grumble under my breath, but at the end of the transaction, I drove off the lot with a full tank -- every time. When I went to Walmart, I would not hesitate to gather all the groceries I needed -- the standard dietary requirements: vegetables, protein, diary, grain, and the ever-important dose of sugar -- paying little mind to whether the cost violated some predetermined budget. When I hung out with coworkers, it was common for me to accept requests such as, "Joshua, you get this round of burgers and I'll get us the next time" -- the type of social interactions that increase ones favorability in the workplace. Throughout these situations, and a host of similar experiences, I did not think deeply about my purchases. I just made them.

However, since starting the Live the Wage Challenge in August, an initiative that asks participants to live on $77 a week, I have become more aware of the privilege inherent in living-wage work, the security that protected me from making small but consequential choices that those earning the minimum wage make on a daily basis. All of a sudden, I was thinking more about my money: how much I had, how much I spent, how much I could spend at a given time or on a given item? I began rationing through different priorities: "Wait, I cannot fill up my tank; I guess $10 will do. And I can do without eggs, bagels, and sports drinks. Oh and that reminds me, I have lunch with a former supervisor this week, I hope we go somewhere cheap."

This deliberate attention to spending, depriving myself of basic wants, was one of my first reflections during this challenge. The behavior seemed distant, almost foreign to me. It represented a level of nickel-and-diming that I had not experienced since my youth, growing up as the fifth child of a single mother. It's important to note that since graduation, I have spent the past few years making modest wages, first as a high-school teacher in Eastern North Carolina, and now as a fellow at MDC, a nonprofit focused on poverty alleviation. Despite this, I found the psychological and behavioral privilege associated with living wage work to be startling. I became aware of how far I had disconnected from the reality that forces those who earn a minimum wage to forego the convenience and peace of mind that a few thousand extra dollars a year can quite literally buy.

I've also become aware of another form of privilege, the privilege that enables those who earn a living wage to weather unforeseen events and shield their bodies from debilitating stress. We have all experienced this feeling. It was the anxiety you felt when indiscriminate state tax cuts caused tuition hikes at your local college. It was the uneasiness in your gut when the clunk in your front hood got louder by the day and your car began to jerk. It was the fear that you bore when your school-aged child got sick and you could not afford to stay at home. It is these unforeseen events, typically to the tune of hundreds to thousands of dollars, that have the capacity to usurp our bi-weekly budgets, deplete our savings, and rattle our financial stability and personal confidence.

But for those who earn the minimum wage, the price tag at which these unexpected events can devastate one's finances is much lower. For me, it was $24.

On Aug. 2, my second day into the challenge, I had driven to a Toyota dealer to do a routine maintenance check. These services have always been free since I bought the car a couple of years ago. When I arrived at the Toyota dealership, I was informed that my two-year free service program had expired just 18 days prior. I began to plead, trying to maintain the dignity I had walked in with, asking if it was possible for him to waive the $24 charge given that I barely missed the cut off for the program. He said there was nothing he could do. This meant that my budget, which had already shrunk to $70 by this time, had now dwindled to $46 and I still had five more days to go before I received more money. This loss evoked a range of emotions: the anxiety in my chest, the uneasiness in my gut, the fear in my heart; each emotion was palpable, growing in intensity the more I thought about how I would make it through the week. When I eventually worked through these feelings and began to reflect, I was struck by how acutely my stress levels had risen as a result of just a $24 unexpected purchase.

The lessons I reflected on in this piece leave me pondering. I now wonder how the behavioral and psychological benefits of living-wage work influence us as community members. Does it numb us to the financial, human, and social capital we leverage on a daily basis to elevate our quality of life? Does this numbness blunt our capacity for empathy -- to see the plight of those struggling most to make ends meet not as their problem but as our problem? Or at the very least, a problem that affects everyone in our community?

I fear the answer to each of these questions is yes.


"Lessons on Privilege and the Unexpected" is the first of a four-part series of my reflections while living on the minimum wage for a month. The subsequent posts can be found on MDC's North Star Blog.

Follow Joshua Mbanusi on Twitter: @JoshuaMbanusi