Tommy Wells plans to spend a week living on minimum wage

December 10, 2013

Candidate Wells is hoping to burnish his progressive bona fides. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Tommy Wells, as a D.C. Council member, makes a yearly salary of $130,510. Starting tomorrow, he is pledging to live — or at least eat and travel — on considerably less.

Wells said his decision to hold his food and transportation costs to the level of a minimum-wage worker for a week is meant to draw attention to the District’s high cost of living and the council’s move last week to approve a considerable increase in its minimum wage over the next three years. But it also stands to burnish the mayoral candidate‘s progressive bona fides as he tries to position himself as the D.C. version of Bill de Blasio, the unabashed liberal who will become New York City mayor on Jan. 1.

Asked Tuesday if other politicos have engaged in the “Live the Wage” exercise previously, Wells said, “I’m pretty sure de Blasio and some other folks have done it.”

His decision, he quickly added, was not a conscious attempt to imitate de Blasio, though Wells did say his campaign was researching how much de Blasio had lived on. “My background is having worked around social services for my whole career,” he said. “This is not a new foray.”

De Blasio took the challenge in July, pledging to live on $92 a week. Wells could have a little more scratch to play with, considering that D.C.’s minimum wage is $1 higher than the federal minimum of $7.25 prevailing in New York. But not much more. Wells said Tuesday afternoon that he has not calculated just how much he’ll be living on but that it will involve taking the wages of a 40-hour minimum-wage workweek and subtracting at least 30 percent for housing and living expenses. (At least: “The average person spends a lot more than 30 percent on housing these days,” he said.)

The biggest question mark, Wells said, is transportation — his schedule is full of campaign and council events, and he is pledging to rely on public transportation, walking and biking to get around. While he said he’ll accept rides from friends or neighbors, his campaign staff will not be chauffeuring him.

“I’ll buy a SmarTrip card for $10 and go from there,” he said.

This particular act of performative politics is new to D.C., but other city officials — including Mayor Vincent C. Gray, council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) — have taken part in a “food stamp challenge” wherein they live on the roughly $20 to $30 received in weekly food benefits.

But other gestures have thus far gone unreplicated in D.C. For instance: Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator and former Newark mayor, famously lived in the Brick Towers housing project for years.

Wells said wasn’t sure yet about a follow-up: “We’re going to start here, but there are some other groups I think will be in need of attention,” he said.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · December 10, 2013