Scraping by on minimum wage

A protest sign from a rally to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour -- back in March of 2005.

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LISA NAPOLI: We continue our series The Real Agenda about the economic issues in this year's midterm elections. Six states have minimum wage hikes on the ballot this November, and 23 states have already boosted it. Oregon's rate, $7.50 an hour, is one of the highest. Mitchell Hartman reports on how minimum wage earners there are getting by.


MITCHELL HARTMAN: Employer groups made two main arguments when they battled a minimum-wage hike in Oregon a few years back. One was that workers would be too expensive, and that would discourage job creation. Another was that it would benefit mainly teenagers and part-timers who work low-wage jobs for extra pocket money.

Well, Oregon's increased minimum wage hasn't stopped employers from adding lots of minimum-wage jobs. And as for who benefits. . .

MARY KING:"The single biggest group are adult women, and more and more, adult women are supporting kids."

That's economist Mary King at Portland State University.

KING:"63 percent of minimum wage workers are full-time workers. These aren't part-time people out to make a little pin money."

Parthena Kinkead fits the demographic to a t: She's 24, raising a 4-year-old son, and she pumps gas for Oregon's current minimum wage of $7.50 an hour.

Kinkead, who didn't finish high school, drove to Oregon from Amarillo, Texas, a few months ago in her beat-up Oldsmobile, because of the scenery and the higher wages. In Texas, she'd be making $5.15 an hour.

And what can she better afford in Oregon?

KINKEAD: Gas, and then I get on food stamps so that'll help me out a little bit too.

HARTMAN: What about rent?

KINKEAD: I just pay it every other week, I pay what I can.

Rent for her small apartment eats up more than two-thirds of Kinkead's $800 a month take-home pay. Which is why, when I met her, she was picking up sandwich bread and canned goods at a local food bank. She doesn't have a phone, a TV, or health insurance.

A world away, on a shi-shi shopping strip, Erin Middleton brews up lattes and mocha frappuccinos at Starbucks and makes a tad more than the minimum wage.

She can work part-time and still make ends meet with a little help from family. And Starbucks' health benefits make a world of difference.

ERIN MIDDLETON: If I had health problems and didn't have good benefits, my life would be in shambles. But tons of people are in that situation, and I don't know what they do, they struggle.

Economist Mary King says poor people also struggle with services that end up costing them more than the rest of us. For example, when they pay for doctor visits out-of-pocket, or cash checks at high-fee payday loan stores.

For her part, Parthena Kinkead says she'll be grateful to make 30 more cents an hour when Oregon's minimum wage is adjusted for inflation in January,

KINKEAD: I could go out for dinner, probably take him out to a movie or a zoo or something like that.

HARTMAN: And you don't do that now?

KINKEAD: No, I don't hardly have the extra money for it.

In Portland, Oregon, I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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