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Face of minimum wage: What's needed to live

Posted: 10:35 PM, Sep 22, 2015
Updated: 2015-09-23 03:35:49Z

Minimum wage is being debated here in the metro and across the country. But, even if the minimum wage is increased, some argue it’s still not enough to pay the bills.

Economists say there is a big difference between minimum wage and the wage needed to live.

Minimum wage vs living wage

Latoya Caldwell lives and works in Kansas City, Mo. She takes care of her five children and works in a fast food restaurant, making $7.70 an hour, which is just above the state’s minimum wage. She says every day is a struggle.

“I thank God for my children,” Caldwell said.

We caught up with her at a church. Caldwell spends as little time as possible at home these days because the lights have been suspended by KCP&L for failure to pay the bill. She now owes more than $1,700 and hates that her children have to get by.

“To have my children come home and flick on the lights and say, ‘Mom, what happened to the lights?’ I have no money to pay it,” Caldwell said.

She has worked in fast food for the last 8 years. She averages 30 hours per week. That means, at $7.70 an hour, she brings home $480-$500 every 2 weeks. 

“When you get that paycheck, your bills are over that paycheck, especially rent, gas, lights, taking care of your children,” Caldwell explained.

She makes 5 cents above the minimum wage, and she’s not alone according to Dr. Peter Eaton, Professor of Economics at UMKC.

“The single mothers who are trying to raise a family working in fast food is where it is,” Dr. Eaton said. “It’s not teenagers who are currently working in fast food restaurants. That’s a myth.”

Minimum wage across state lines

Missouri’s minimum wage is $7.65 an hour. Kansas has a lower minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The highest state minimum wage in the country is Washington’s at $9.15 an hour. 

Cities across the country have gotten involved. Seattle is in the process of increasing its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Chicago’s will go up to $13 an hour, and New York City is also looking into it.

Kansas City tried to follow, but Missouri legislators joined a number of states clamping down on cities efforts to raise their own minimum wages.

RELATED | MO legislators: Cities can’t enact minimum wages higher than state

Dr. Eaton said opponents across the country argue an increase would restrain job growth and hurt the overall economy.

“It is believed that if you raise the minimum wage that will result in the prices of everything going up,” he said.

Dr. Eaton said the gap between the living wage and the actual minimum wage has grown through the years.

“If you were to take the minimum wage that prevailed in 1970 and bring it to today’s terms, it would be almost 12 dollars an hour,” he said.

The debate continues

How should companies set their bottom line wages? A state or federally regulated minimum wage or a true “living wage?”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a living wage map that shows the amount of money needed to live in every county in the country. In Jackson County, Mo., a single adult with no children needs to make $9.95 an hour to be able to afford rent, utilities, food, transportation, and other necessities. That’s a $2.30 gap every hour.

The numbers jump even higher with children.  

Check the living wage in your county by visiting livingwagecalculator.mit.edu

“In the KC metro area, over 45 percent of the labor force earns less than $15 an hour,” said Dr. Eaton.

For Caldwell, that number is even higher. She is getting assistance to pay for child care for her youngest two. She also gets food stamps and Medicaid for all five of her children. But, she is hopeful she won’t rely on government assistance for long.

"Where do we go from here? How do we make it? How do we get up from here? That’s where I'm at right now. I'm just stuck,” she said.

There are no immediate plans to raise the minimum wage in Kansas or Missouri. On Tuesday, Sept. 22, a judge ruled the petition to raise Kansas City’s minimum wage to $15 an hour should be removed from the November ballot because of the action taken last week by Missouri legislators, who outlawed the cities from raising it.

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