"What you don't necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour," writes Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, "is that what you're really selling is your life." The going hourly rate for your life is? $7.25 if you go by the federal minimum wage, which hasn't been raised since 2009. More than half of states mandate a higher minimum wage than the federal level. A minimum wage job will fetch you $10 an hour in Maine; $10.50 in California; and $12.50 in Washington, D.C. But where is that wage enough to get by?
"Getting by" is a notably nebulous term. In 2018, the federal poverty level for an individual was $12,140. Work 40 hours a week at $7.25 an hour for all 52 weeks of the year, and you'll top out at the relatively princely $15,080. But if you have two children that salary puts you more than $5,000 below the poverty line.
And "getting by" is in stark contrast to a "livable wage." When the website Zippia crunched the numbers using MIT's Living Wage Calculator, Kentucky, the most affordable, still required $43,308 annually to support two adults and one kid.
Across the country, a single parent working minimum wage with two children should expect to sleep in the living room. A new study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found there's not a single county or metropolitan area in the United States in which a minimum-wage worker can afford a two-bedroom home. There are only 12 counties in the country where a one-bedroom home is within reach at all, and most of them were in rural areas, where jobs are few and far between.
"I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that 'hard work' was the secret of success: 'Work hard and you'll get ahead' or 'It's hard work that got us where we are,'" writes Ehrenreich. "No one ever said that you could work hard — harder even than you ever thought possible — and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt."
So where can a person scrape by on minimum wage? GOBankingRates found the largest cities where the minimum wage is higher than the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage. Then they factored in the median cost of a one-bedroom apartment, groceries, utilities, and transport and found the best places to live on very, very little.
The minimum wage is $8.90 an hour but the median rent in Motor City is just under $600. After the necessities are paid, minimum-wage earners in Detroit will have $4,870 left over.
Though the minimum wage is only $8.15 an hour, GOBankingRates could find no city with rent cheaper than Toledo, where it's about $500 a month. Groceries are cheapest here, too. After basic necessities, a minimum wage earlier in Toledo could expect to have $5,248 in their pockets.
The minimum wage in Arizona is a comparatively princely $20,800. They also pay less for utilities than most places, so that when the bills are paid, a minimum wage earner here could expect to have $6,201 left over for the year.
With the highest minimum wage on the list at $10.50 an hour, it's possible to get by in Fresno where rent and utilities are also pretty cheap. At the end of the year, a minimum wage worker here will have $8,387 left over.
Topping the list for it-can-be-done is Tucson, Arizona, where rent, groceries, and utilities are comparable to Toledo but the minimum wage is almost $2 more per hour. A minimum-wage worker in Tucson can expect to clear $8,704 annually after the necessities.
But this life is far from the high life. Living on an extreme budget year-round is like trying to thrive long-term on a super-restrictive diet—it's not sustainable. And the stress of poverty is so profound, it's shaving years—often more than a decade—off people's lives.
"People go to work to 'make a living,'" writes Kate McGahan, "and yet it seems to me they just work very hard to pay for a life that they cannot live because they are so busy working to pay for it."