Candidate’s Minimum Wage Challenge Puts Spotlight on “Working Poor”

Johnathan Comer

Six days into his “Live the Wage” challenge, DC City Councilmember Tommy Wells reported he had lost a couple of pounds.

Trying to live on the city’s minimum wage of $8.25 an hour had him depending on his crockpot and handheld blender, he explained. The cost-efficient, freezable portions of splitpea and pinto bean soup he prepared made up for expensive and calorie-rich snacks that were off-limits for the duration of the exercise he announced on December 10.

Wells launched the challenge after introducing a “Living Wage for All” bill in September. He said his goal was to draw attention to the difficulties of low-wage living. Wells, who is also running for mayor, has meticulously documented his experiment on Twitter, updating his followers on his experiences as he goes. As it turns out, Wells has found the cost of transportation particularly difficult.

“I’m not able to fully do my job with restricted transit,” he said on Dec. 16. With Metro fares at a minimum of $2.10 during peak hours, getting from A to B multiple times a day would quickly exceed Wells’ self-imposed budget.

“I never really thought about the fact that the subway system, the metro, really is for people that have more money,” Wells said. “If I continued on the budget, I would not be able to completely fulfill my duties as a city councilman.”

Wells’ experiment follows a decision by the council two weeks ago to approve a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $11.50 by July 2016, and index it to inflation in the following years. If implemented, the D.C. metropolitan area would claim the highest minimum wage in the nation, since the council’s action coincides with very similar measures being passed by the Prince George’s and Montgomery County legislatures in the city’s Maryland suburbs.

But Wells said his “Live the Wage” challenge also serves as a reminder that low-income families and individuals are facing a number of obstacles that are likely persist even if a minimum wage increase takes effect. Beyond the problems the Ward 6 councilmember sees with the Metro rail and bus systems which he refers to respectively as “first and second class transportation,” people’s transit choices are often also limited because they don’t have access to the commodity of a credit card, he said.

“I’ve always kind of prided myself that I can get around the city anywhere, anytime without a car. But I’ve learned that’s only because I had the power of the credit card,” Wells said. Seeing the “degree to which people are being disenfranchised” because services like Bikeshare or Zipcar are only available for credit card holders, making these modes of transportation more accessible to the “working poor” would be “one of the policy issues [he] will spend the next two months to a year working on,” he said.

Wells acknowledged his minimum wage experiment is bound to be imperfect. Unlike actual minimum wage earners, he doesn’t have to worry about having decent clothes to wear, paying the utility bills, or having a home in the first place. After all, after seven days, his budget will be back to its usual, six-figure level. Many commentators in online forums have made snarky remarks about the credibility of what they see as a publicity stunt surrounding Wells’ mayoral bid in the 2014 election. Others pointed out that Wells, a married man, “lived the wage” on a single individual’s budget.

Yet Wells seemed to have no illusions about the discrepancy between his own experiment and the experiences of “real” minimum wage earners.

“It’s clear to me there’s a major difference between being a single person, and managing on food, and having a family. There’s just no comparison,” he said.

In a Dec. 11 WJLA report, the councilmember was filmed grocery shopping with CeCe Butler, a mother of two working at the minimum wage. He is impressed with her ability to make the most with the very tight budget she is on, and in light of his new cost-saving cooking habit, he said he could “absolutely” imagine pulling off at least the food part of the challenge for more than one week—after all, especially cutting back on eating out saved him $300 dollars, he said.

But at the same time, he came to better understand privilege he has enjoyed by having choices. “I wrote my bike here this morning in order to save cost. [Ms. Butler] generally is not going to be able to take her children to school with a bike and go to McDonalds, where she works. So she will have to bear the cost. She doesn’t have the ability to opt out like I do,” Wells said.

The current momentum for new minimum wage legislation has been sustained by highly favorable public opinion. A Washington Post reader poll put support for the proposed minimum wage hike at 68 percent and President Obama’s renewed push for a higher federal minimum wage, currently set at $7.25, showed over the past few weeks that the issue enjoys high attention on a national level.

Additionally, events like the election of progressive Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York City earlier this year boosted optimism that bold precedents in terms of minimum wage increases could be set soon on local levels across the country.

Mayor Gray has endorsed a more cautious proposal of a $10 minimum wage, a level favored by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, according to a recent Washington Post report.

The mayor has called the $11.50 wage “far too high,” and has requested more study on the consequences of automatic adjustments to inflation. But a united city council may limit the choices of the mayor.
“We’re gonna lead without the mayor,” Wells said in stark terms. “We have a veto-proof majority, I worked hard to keep the votes together, and no councilmember wants to be on the wrong side of history. So the mayor has become irrelevant in this discussion.”

Wells’ “Live the Wage” challenge was scheduled to come to an end on Dec. 18. But the soup lunches are here to stay, he said. “Those are very hearty, and I’m set for beyond my seven days.”

Region |Washington DC

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