When I accepted the minimum wage challenge this summer, my goal was to raise awareness and build support for raising the wage in Illinois.
When I finished my week living on the minimum wage, it was my own awareness that was raised.
For seven days, I lived without many of the small things in life that I often take for granted. Like giving my niece a birthday card with money inside. Enjoying hot tea from Dunkin Donuts. Having oatmeal for breakfast. And when I ran out of aspirin during the week, I had no choice but to go without.
But what I experienced last week doesn't compare with what a minimum wage worker goes through. For one, I also had the comfort of knowing this challenge would end after 7 days -- a comfort minimum wage workers don't have.
Every day I struggled a little, I thought of the working families who struggle a lot. It was humbling and tough to get by for a week on just $79 -- can you imagine what it's like for workers who face this challenge 365 days a year?
The minimum wage in Illinois is just $8.25. That is less than half of the average U.S. hourly wage. A full-time minimum wage worker in Illinois makes approximately $17,000 annually, well below the Federal Poverty Threshold of $19,790 for a family of three.
How do they make it? I tried to save with modest meals, usually bananas for breakfast and graham crackers for dinner, and yes, I was hungry. Can you imagine the difficult choices a minimum wage worker makes every single day? What about their kids?
Folks across the country are starting to get it and just this year, 11 states have enacted increases in their minimum wage. Millions of people in those 11 states will finally get a better chance to support themselves and their families and begin the journey to the middle class.
Illinois should be next to providing this pathway.
The fact is, raising the wage isn't just good for workers. It's good for our economy. If we took the step of raising the wage to $10 an hour, this would mean a half-million Illinoisans would make an extra $4,800 per year.
Working people tend to put this money right back into the economy in the form of purchases for food, clothing and furniture-and usually from small businesses.
I visited local establishments across the state (and I had a few bowls of grits along to way), talking to folks who earn the minimum wage and who know people who do. All over, I heard overwhelming support for giving people a hand up. We may not agree on everything, but most of us agree that nobody who works full-time should live in poverty.
This November, we'll have a chance to help get it done when a referendum question appears on the ballot: Should the state's minimum wage be raised?
When you head to the ballot box, you have an opportunity to tell their lawmakers how you want them to proceed. Will we help lift more people into the middle class and boost our economy? Will we do what is fair? If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since it was established, it would be $10.65 by now.
This is about dignity and decency.
I know that the minimum wage challenge I took and the tight budget I experienced over a mere seven days doesn't hold a candle to the battle for economic security so many Illinoisans face every day, in the face of an economy that too often puts the bottom line over our fellow-man and woman.
In raising the wage, we can say to our neighbors: We're in this together.
Let's give Illinois a raise.