Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Analyzing a Practical Minimum Wage

The following article used by permission, courtesy of Minimum Wage Workers Union

On this page, we will itemize a sample budget for a single person in order to analyze what a fair standard would be for a minimum-wage worker. It is our position that a person working eight hours a day, five days a week, at any job, should be able to support themselves to a minimum basic standard of living. This practical wage is necessary in order to elevate the class of working poor to contributing members of society. Working for anything less than what is needed to subsist on independently, is nothing short of slavery.

All figures are based on national averages, for a Federal standard.

RENT ------------------------------$1000
BASIC UTILITIES --------------$200
FOOD ------------------------------$300
CLOTHING -----------------------$75
TRANSPORTATION ----------$500
HEALTHCARE -----------------$350
MISCELLANEOUS -----------$400


Average Basic Monthly Expenses  $3,025

A full-time job at 40 hours per week is 173.2 hours per month calculating 4.33 weeks in each month. To find a reasonable minimum wage, we divide the average basic monthly expenses figure, by the number of hours worked. For the average American worker to support themselves without government assistance or by borrowing beyond their means, that worker must earn...

$17.47 per hour

Of course, that figure must be after all taxes and contributions are taken, or that anyone earning that amount must be exempt from all such garnishments and liability. A person who cannot even afford to pay their own way, cannot afford to pay taxes. Forcing them to pay taxes that will jeopardize their basic standard of living, is unsound economics and in the long run will only force other taxpayers to subsidize those workers, in turn jeopardizing their own living standard, in a perpetual cycle that we see happening today as more workers descend into deep poverty. 

If $17.47 per hour seems unreasonable to you, or just downright impossible, consider a few more facts. There was a time when a grocery clerk, or a department store salesperson could actually support themselves on what they earned. That is not so today.

Using data by the U.S. BLS, the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. One way to look at that is that it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford the same standard of living as a worker in 1950 (or our standard of living should be 4 times higher). Is that the case? Obviously not. Someone is profiting, it’s just not the average American worker. -Source

Based on consumption growth since 1968, the minimum wage today would
have to be $25.05 to represent the same share of the country's total
consumption. Based on national income growth, the minimum wage should be
$22.08. Based on personal income growth, it should be $21.16. -

After adjusting for inflation, minimum wage workers today are paid about 26 percent less than they were in 1974.

At the top 1 percent of the American income distribution, average
incomes rose 194 percent between 1974 and 2011.  Had U.S. minimum wages
risen at the same pace as U.S. maximum wages, the minimum wage would now
be $26.96 an hour. -Source

Here is a detailed description of how we arrived at our sample budget figures:

RENT- $1,000

It is very difficult to find an accurate national average cost for a rental apartment. Local market values have a very wide range, and rental units are not uniform. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) the median asking price for an unfurnished rental unit was $1,277 in the first-quarter of 2012. That amount is below what one might have to spend even for the most basic, small studio apartment in New York City, but enough to secure a large 3-bedroom apartment in a mid-western town. We must assume, however, that the minimum-wage worker will most likely be living where work is available which is more often in regions where rent is much higher. For the purposes of our analyses, we have generalized to come up with a figure that is below the national average, in order to establish a minimum standard of living. $1000 is what one might expect to pay for a one-bedroom apartment in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area.


This is another expense which is difficult to accurately quantify through statistical data. Again, we see large variances in regional costs as well. For example, the cost for electricity in Idaho is about 8-cents per kilowatt-hour, while in Hawaii it is over 33-cents. Sometimes, some utilities are included in monthly rent payment. Electricity, water/sewer, garbage collection, natural gas, heating oil and more can be part of a renter's basic utilities expense. The person's utility configuration may also play a role in their overall monthly budget. For example, if a person uses electricity for heating, rather than natural gas or oil, they will pay a much higher electric bill than the national average. Electric heat can be more costly than other heating sources as well. According to The WhiteFence Index, the average monthly cost for electricity  was $118.82 for the month of July 2012. Natural gas stood at $19.55 for the same warm-weather month, but was much higher in places like NYC which stood at $35 05.

So calculating roughly $120 per month for electric, and putting aside another $80 for other potential utility expense such as heat or garbage collection, we come to the estimate of $200. That estimate is supported by a NUMBEO cost of living survey of more than 3,000 people who paid an average of $197.99 for basic utilities over the past 18 months.


While some may argue that things like internet access, cellphones, and television are not necessities, they are still quite important to a productive member of society. Television may wind up as a worker's only form of entertainment, and entertainment is indeed a necessity for a human being's mental health. Internet access, while it may seem like a luxury to some, it really has become quite an important tool. For example, most jobs today cannot be applied to except online over the internet at the company's website. Internet access might be free at some place like a library, but that would incur additional transportation costs for an individual, often business cannot be taken care of under imposed time limits, and a worker's work schedule may not be compatible with a library's business hours. Telephone service is absolutely a necessity in modern society, whether it be cellular or a land line service. One must be able to report emergencies, make doctor's appointments, be accessible to potential employers, etc.

Using the WhiteFence Index again, we see that the national average for television service is roughly $55, and internet is close to $40. According to one comprehensive survey, the average cellphone bill was $47.11 in December 2010. $50 a month won't pay for a smart phone or excessive use, but the mobility of a cellphone makes it well worth the five or ten extra dollars one might pay over the average cost of a home telephone line. Having a cellphone can actually save a person money in the long-run, when they can coordinate rides rather than paying cab-fare, when they can receive an important call right away rather than going home to check an answering machine, and many other ways that we take for granted.

FOOD - $300

The maximum benefit for a single person using "food stamps" or partaking of the Federal Supplementary Nutritional Allowance Plan (SNAP) is $200 per month. SNAP is not intended to be a person's only food source, though often it is sadly enough. Surviving on less than $200 a month can be very difficult, even dangerous to one's health. For our estimate here, we have added a modest $100 to the Federal supplementary amount. A person who is working will require more portable meals to take with them to work, which can incur additional cost. Also, it is sometimes necessary to eat a prepared meal from a restaurant or vendor. An unexpected delay at the doctor's office, a lunch stolen from the break-room refrigerator, or any number of unforeseen events can take place which will leave a person needing to pay for a meal outside of the home. Even at $300 per month, a person will still have to be a wise shopper to eat healthy, as more nutritious foods are usually more expensive. The USDA estimates an at-home moderate food cost plan for an adult male to be $292.80.


This is another category which is difficult to calculate due to wide variances in a person's habits, living conditions and so forth. Nonetheless, we must budget some amount for things like soap, detergents, razor blades, toothpaste, deodorant, over-the-counter medicine, paper products, light bulbs, etcetera. $50 does not seem an unreasonable amount to calculate for such necessary goods.


Even for a person who is not concerned about fashion, clothing can be a significant expense, and is often neglected by those living at or near the poverty level. Clothes wear out over time, more quickly for a person who is working regularly. Each year, a person will likely need new pants, shoes, shirts, and underclothing as the old ones become worn and frayed or accidentally damaged. A person who works in some fields may have to spend more, to keep up proper appearances, such as dress shoes and ties, or dresses. Even a person who goes on a job interview at a fast-food restaurant should have an outfit or two that is a step above their daily wear. Such an outfit would also be reserved for events such as court dates, funerals, and so forth. A person may also need to replace a winter coat every few years, or unexpectedly as well. On top of the expense for the clothing itself, we also have a significant expense in the maintenance of that clothing. Most low-income workers do not own their own laundry facilities, and even if they did, it would incur additional utility cost.

Again, because of so many variables, in a person's habits, the job they have, the environment they are exposed to, it is difficult to calculate a specific dollar amount to be applied to everyone, so we will have to make a conservative but informed estimate. Assuming that a person does not work in a "dirty"job such as construction, in a kitchen or butcher shop, or something of that nature that would require a lot of clothing to be cleaned regularly, we will estimate a very modest 3 loads of laundry per week, at a cost of $4 per load,or a bit more than $50 per month in laundry expense not including detergent.

Next we will calculate the cost of new/replacement clothing based on a quick Google search of popular bargain retailers. Two pair of jeans at $40 per pair, or $80. One pair of quality name-brand footwear, at $75 for the pair. Two packages of undershorts, $20. One package of socks, $20. Three collared polo-style shirts, $45. We will also set aside another $60 for seasonal-wear and accessories, such as swim-suit, winter gloves, replacement coat, sweatshirt, pajamas, etc. This gives us a total of $300 for clothing for the year. This is quite a modest sum really, considering that many people spend double that much twice a year, with other itemized purchases throughout the year. We then divide the $300 by twelve months for an estimated monthly expense of $25. We then add the $50 per month laundry expense, for a grand total of $75 per month to stay clothed.


Public transportation is generally considered to be much cheaper than owning your own car, but that savings is often offset by the higher cost of rent and general living expenses in a big city. There may also be times when a person may wind up having to pay for expensive cab fares, when mass transit is not an option. Finally, public transportation is not reliable or doesn't exist outside of city limits. So for this section, we are going to calculate the costs of operating a car as one's primary transportation.

A modest car loan of $4,000 over 48 months at 12% interest would incur a monthly debt payment of  $105.34. Taxes, registration, licensing, and safety inspection all vary widely from state to state and city to city, while estimating repair costs and depreciation can be tricky, but the Federal standard is set at 55.5-cents per mile in 2012. (Some sources put overall operating expense as high as $1.39 per mile.) Assuming a short 20-mile round-trip commute, and also assuming that all errands are taken care of while going to or returning from work, we come up with the conservative estimate of 433 miles per month, at an operating cost of roughly $240, plus the $105 for the loan payment is $345. Now we add insurance cost. CarInsurance.com has pinned the national average at $1,794 for July 2012, or roughly $150 per month. We will round off the transportation cost to $500 per month. This is roughly the same amount as 7 mass transit fares in NYC per day, or as few as 3 metro rides per day in Washington DC.


The healthcare system in the United States is a complete disaster, with premiums now double and triple what they were only ten or twenty years ago. Even for a person who can afford health insurance, choosing the right plan can be a descent into madness trying to sort out all of the facts. According to a 2011 report by eHealth, the average monthly premium for an individual was $183. But that report also shows that figure was a 9.6% increase form the year before, and that the average deductible was $2,935. Which means, of course, that such a policy is only good for serious illness or injury. A more practical policy would cost a person quite a bit more, in order to see a doctor when they are sick, or twist an ankle, or something of a more common nature. If we have a look at the plans available to US Federal employees, we see that individual policies range from about $280 monthly, to more than $600. Dental care and vision care may not be included in many policies, making overall healthcare costs even higher. We will realistically estimate monthly healthcare costs to be $350 for a most basic level of practical coverage.


The items we have covered here are only the most basic cost of living needs, and have been conservatively estimated so that only the most frugal person could get by on these amounts. These figures do not account for a wide range of unexpected and miscellaneous expenses. Having one's car stolen, for example, could be absolutely devastating to someone who was only carrying basic insurance on their vehicle. Things like holiday gifts, fitness center dues, vacations, student-loan payments and educational expenses, furniture, haircuts, life insurance, and more have all been left out here. Having a child to care for, would dramatically increase expenses as well. Website eHow recommends adding 15% to any budget to allow for unforeseen and unexpected purchases. So we will do that here.

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Thank you for taking the time to read our report, and please feel free to leave comments below.

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