Raising wages from $8.31 per hour to $12 per hour in 2020, as Colorado voters opted to do in November, does not solve the plight of poverty. While it is a start in the context of changing workforce/workplace inequities, depending on one's family dynamic, the act of raising the minimum wage is limited when it comes to bringing families out of poverty. In some cases, it can make circumstances worse. A home, utilities, home insurance, food, fuel, car insurance, phone and medical coverage are baseline necessities to live in American society. However, the current minimum wage, now at $9.30 per hour, will not cover these expenses, and raising it puts minimum-wage workers in a higher income bracket that affects their eligibility for social services.
A single parent making $9.30 and working full-time would make about $19,344 annually — $24,960 at $12 per hour (Colorado's minimum wage in 2020). According to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, the average rental rate in Colorado Springs is $1,060.84 (for efficiencies to three-bedroom units) which equates to about $12,730 a year. For the person making minimum wage, this takes up 66 percent of their income (51 percent for the person making $12). There is simply not enough money to pay basic bills, even if they work full-time.
I can tell you from my recent search, I was hard-pressed to find decent, clean rental units with two bedrooms for less than $1,200. Imagine a single parent with three kids trying to rent a two-bedroom apartment on Section 8, a federal program that subsidizes rent for low-income individuals. The program is limited to a certain number of clients and there is a wait list to be accepted. In fact, most of the time, the city Housing Authority's wait list for Section 8 is so long that they won't even accept new names. What's more, not all landlords accept this program, making housing choices for clients limited and highly competitive.
Another facet of a minimum-wage worker's life that might be affected as the minimum wage rises are any benefits that he or she may receive from the county's Department of Human Services (i.e. food stamps and Medicaid). Kristina Iodice, spokesperson for the department, says: "If minimum wage does increase then it would be very possible that a family who is eligible for assistance would see their benefits decrease or no longer be eligible, because the department follows federal poverty guidelines."
Since minimum wage is determined by states, federal definitions of poverty may not always line up with regional definitions. In this case, making $12 an hour actually positions the person to receive less in food stamps. According to Hunger Free Colorado, "food stamps provide eligible families with modest monthly funds to purchase food, averaging only about $1.40 per person, per meal." If that amount were to decrease by half that would leave families with 60 to 70 cents per meal to purchase food.
From my own experience raising my children in a one-parent home, I mostly feel impoverished when it comes to my time. The amount of time I spend out of the home in order to develop my skills (to build toward our future), put a roof over my children's heads and put food on the table leaves less time for tending to my children's developmental and emotional needs. I have to have a lot of internal fortitude to endure the pressure, and often feel like I have to work twice as hard and pay twice as much to accomplish simple tasks or endure simple setbacks. It feels like digging out of prison with a spoon. The jobs feel like they never end. I never have a day off, and it is hard not to lose focus on exactly what it is I am working for. As Americans we like to find value in our work either on the job or in our personal lives. However, living at or below the poverty line leaves little room for reward.
Bringing a person out of poverty is complicated. Public service benefits aren't entirely the solution either, but how can public service benefits and decent living wages work together instead of opposing each other?
Increasing minimum wage is important, but it has to be supported by a more comprehensive structural support system that helps families graduate off of public service benefits instead of just cutting them off. Systems should include decent living wages, housing opportunities, educational development, fixed-rate rent, adequate nutrition, transportation solutions and child-development support to change the trajectory of one's life.