Recently, efforts have been growing to set a minimum wage of $15. From Seattle1 to Los Angeles2 to New York,3 lawmakers have adopted the $15 minimum to help families move beyond living paycheck to paycheck. Such a wage is significantly higher than state and federal minimums and would move families closer to a living wage. Continued progress would be needed to guarantee a living wage for all workers and families.
Since 1999, the Alliance for a Just Society has produced an annual living wage report calculating what it actually costs to make ends meet for households in selected states. For the first time this year, the Job Gap Economic Prosperity Series includes a living wage for all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
A living wage is the amount a full-time worker needs to be paid to make ends meet, including having the ability to set money aside for savings and emergencies. In urban and rural states across the country, the living wage is consistently far higher than the minimum wage, and more than most people would guess.
In 35 states and in Washington, D.C., the living wage for a single adult is greater than $15 per hour. No state has a living wage for a single adult that is less than $14 an hour. Nationally, the living wage for a single adult is closer to $16.87 an hour. For working families with children, though, the cost to make ends meet is even higher.
In the 16 states and Washington, D.C. where a living wage for other family sizes was calculated, the living wage for a single adult with two children ranges from $25.56 in Idaho to $43.30 in Massachusetts, and $44.17 in Washington, D.C.
Nowhere in the country can a family with two children and two parents (who are both working) make ends meet if each working parent is paid less $17.85 per hour. In most of the country, it costs even more.
Often, it is the workers in occupations that other workers depend on, such as fast food and restaurant workers, retail salespersons, child care workers, and more, who are paid low wages and are unable to support themselves and their families, even working full-time. Women and people of color, who are more likely to work in these occupations, are even less likely than their peers to earn a living wage.
Fifteen dollars per hour is significantly higher than any minimum wage in the country. However, it is not a living wage in most states. In 35 states and in Washington, D.C., a living wage for a single adult is more than $15 per hour. In no state is a living wage less than $14.26 per hour.
In fact, nationally, the living wage for a single adult is $16.87 per hour ($35,087 annually) – the weighted average of single adult living wages for all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Retail, fast food, child care, and restaurant workers provide services that almost everyone depends on. Whether it is finding a new outfit for a job interview, stopping at the drive-thru between jobs, going out for a family dinner, or dropping the kids off at child care on the way to work, workers in these occupations help us live our lives. And yet, these are the jobs that pay some of the lowest wages in the country.
In 2014, 4,562,160 people worked as retail salespersons at a median wage of $10.29 per hour.4 These workers help families across the country buy the goods they need – from clothing, to televisions, to toothpaste, to power tools. They restock shelves, help customers find products, process customers’ payments, and often are the ones to help clean up any messes.
While women make up about half of full-time low-wage retail salespersons, they make up only 30 percent of retail salespersons earning a living wage.* Similarly, while workers of color make up more than a quarter of full-time low-wage retail salespersons, they make up only 18 percent of those earning a living wage. For those earning the median wage of $10.29 per hour, retail salespersons must work more than 66 hours per week for a single adult to make ends meet. To support a family, she would need to work many more hours.
Child care workers, too, are paid low wages despite the important role they play. In 2014, 582,970 people worked as child care providers at a median wage of $9.48 per hour.5 Child care workers not only allow parents to go to work instead of staying home with their children; these workers take care of children’s basic needs, help teach children important skills, prepare toddlers for kindergarten, and help older children with their schoolwork.
Women are especially overrepresented in child care work, as are people of color. While people of color make up only 20 percent of all full-time workers in all occupations, about one quarter of child care workers are people of color. Further, while women make up less than half of the overall full-time workforce, 96.8 percent of child care workers are women.
As with retail salespersons, a 40-hour work week is not enough to allow child care workers to make ends meet. In fact, they must work more than 71 hours per week to make the equivalent of 40 hours at $16.87 per hour.
Those who cook and serve food at restaurants, from fast food to finer dining, are particularly low paid. In 2014, 3,131,390 people worked as fast food workers at a median wage of $8.85 per hour.6 These workers help customers quickly purchase relatively inexpensive meals, allowing others to grab a quick bite away from home whether between jobs or at the end of a busy day. Fast food workers prepare food, provide customer service, and help with cleaning.
As with retail, women are less likely than men to earn a living wage as full-time fast food workers, though only about 5 percent of all fast food workers earn a living wage. While women make up 66 percent of low-wage full-time fast food workers, they make up only 64 percent of fast food workers earning a living wage. And, nearly all of those workers are white, with almost no full-time fast food workers of color earning a living wage. At the median wage of $8.85 per hour, fast food workers must work more than 76 hours per week to make enough for a single adult to make ends meet.
While fast food workers are paid especially low wages, servers in restaurants also struggle to make ends meet. In 2014, 2,445,230 people worked as waiters and waitresses at a median wage of $9.01 per hour.7 Waiters and waitresses take orders and provide food at dining establishments, and also help ensure that diners have a pleasant experience.
Women are overrepresented in this occupation, but are significantly less likely to be paid a living wage. While women make up more than two thirds of low-wage full-time waiters and waitresses, they account for just over 32 percent of those paid a living wage. Workers of color are also less likely to be paid a living wage, making up nearly 21 percent of full-time low-wage waiters and waitresses, but only 17 percent of those who were paid a living wage. Waiters and waitresses who are paid the median wage of $9.01 per hour must work nearly 75 hours per week to make enough for a single adult to make ends meet.
One factor leading servers to be paid low wages is the fact that they are tipped workers. Tipped workers, including waiters and waitresses, hair stylists, and car wash workers, also play an important role in their community. However, unlike other service workers, in 43 states and in Washington, D.C. tipped workers are paid a subminimum wage that is lower than the minimum wage for non-tipped workers. At the federal level, the tipped subminimum wage of $2.13 per hour has not increased since 1991.8 The median tipped subminimum wage for states that allow employers to pay tipped workers less than minimum wage is $2.70.9
While the tipped subminimum wage is supposed to be balanced by and adjusted based on tips received, for many tipped workers this is not the case. Industries that employ tipped workers, like the restaurant industry, have staggering levels of wage theft; in a compliance sweep by the U.S. Department of Labor from 2010-2012, “83.8 percent of investigated restaurants had some type of violation.”10 Similarly, a 2008 survey found that 30 percent of workers in the sample were not even paid the tipped worker minimum wage, and 12 percent reported that employers or supervisors stole their tips.11
Additionally, women are more likely to experience wage violations than men, and workers of color are more likely to see violations than are white workers,12 leading to a lower likelihood of having their total compensation equal a living wage.
Like other low-wage occupations, even a 40-hour work week is not always enough to make ends meet. If a tipped worker who was paid the median subminimum wage of $2.70 per hour had a very slow week and received no tips, and was not compensated by her employer for the lack of tips, she would need to work 250 hours per week to be paid the equivalent of 40 hours at $16.87 per hour.13 She would not be able to make the equivalent of a living wage even working 24 hours, seven days a week.
While non-tipped workers are not subject to the tipped subminimum wage, workers paid the non-tipped minimum wage still fall well short of earning a living wage.
At $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage is less than half of what is needed for a single adult to make ends meet in most states, requiring workers at this wage to work 93 hours per week to be paid the equivalent of 40 hours at $16.87 per hour. That’s more than two full time jobs.
While 29 states and Washington, D.C. have a minimum wage that is higher than the federal minimum wage, many people still have to work the equivalent of two or more full-time jobs to be paid the equivalent of 40 hours at their state’s single adult living wage. In fact, in 35 states and in Washington, D.C., minimum wage workers must work more than 80 hours to earn enough for a single adult to make ends meet in that state.14
A living wage for even a single adult is considerably higher than the minimum wage in every state and in Washington, D.C., leaving millions of workers unable to make ends meet. Additionally, women and people of color are more likely to work in low-wage occupations and to earn low wages within those occupations. Ensuring that working families make ends meet will require a variety of tools, including:
Increase the federal minimum wage to a living wage to help workers across all industries. Wages from a full-time job should provide enough income for workers to make ends meet. With a living wage for a single adult exceeding $15 per hour in most states, the federal minimum wage (and state minimum wages) should reflect the true cost of living and set the wage floor at a level that ensures at least enough for a single adult to support herself.
Eliminate the tipped subminimum wage. Ensuring that all workers are covered by the same minimum wage would lift more workers out of poverty and put workers on a level playing field. This would put the responsibility on business owners to pay their workers’ wages, rather than relying on customers to make up the difference.
Support unions and collective bargaining. Union members earn higher wages than non-union members, and the gender wage gap is less for unionized workplaces than it is for those that are not unionized. In addition, unions put upward pressure on wages for all workers – even those whose workplaces are not unionized.
Collective bargaining can also help lower the cost of living through access to affordable health insurance and retirement plans, along with benefits like paid sick leave and paid family leave that guarantees workers are paid while they care for their own health and when they care for their families.
Establish work supports like paid sick days, and expand eligibility for the Family Medical Leave Act to more businesses and occupations. Paid sick leave is crucial to the well-being of all workers; it provides recovery time from illness rather than forcing one to come in sick or risk losing their job.
For parents with children, and especially single mothers who are more likely to be working a low-wage job and living paycheck to paycheck, the risk of losing that job to take care of a sick child is a heartbreaking dilemma.
Additionally, women without maternity leave are at risk of losing their jobs. For women earning less than a living wage, this can threaten their housing, health, and chance for them and their children to stay out
Strengthen and enforce equal opportunity statutes. Women and people of color continue to be more likely to earn low wages. Equal opportunity statutes like the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action were designed to help ensure that women and people of color are not discriminated against in the workplace and in other venues, helping give them a fair shot at earning a higher wage as well as preventing other discrimination.
However, enforcement of these policies isn’t consistent, leaving the statutes weak and ineffective. Strengthening and enforcing such statutes can help ensure that the statutes actually benefit women and people of color.
Invest in state and federal safety net programs. Until there are enough living wage jobs to go around, families will continue to make tough choices. Federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) should be strengthened, and state supports like earned income tax credits and child care assistance should be bolstered.
Invest in living wage jobs. Federal, state, and local contracts should be tied to wages and ensure that contracted workers are paid enough to make ends meet.
Additionally, subsidies should go to companies that pay workers a living wage, with consequences for companies that fail to create and retain living wage jobs.
Across the country, current minimum wages, both state and federal, fall far short of a living wage. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 hour represents less than half of the average living wage for a single adult. For families with children, the shortfall is even greater.
Without a living wage, workers and their families must make tough decisions that have long-term consequences. They must either work hours in excess of full-time employment, or they must cut back on necessities. Both options have negative impacts on famiilies and communities but are consequences of an inadequate wage floor.
Even for a single adult, it is impossible to make ends meet at the current minimum wage without cutting back on essentials.
Minimum wage rates should reflect the cost of making ends meet, and at a minimum working full-time should ensure financial stability. Policymakers bear responsibility for establishing wage rates that reflect these standards.