Life at $7.25 an Hour

minimum wage
Robert Iles works for $7.25 an hour in Atchison, Kansas - the rate that is likely to become the nation's new minimum wage. (David Finkel - David Finkel -The Washington Post)
By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

ATCHISON, Kan. -- It was payday. Money, at last. Twenty-two-year-old Robert Iles wanted to celebrate. "Tonight, chimichangas!" he announced.

He was on his way out of the store where his full-time job pays him $7.25 an hour -- the rate that is likely to become the nation's new minimum wage. Life at $7.25: This is the life of Robert Iles, and with $70 in a wallet that had been empty that morning, he headed to a grocery store where for $4.98 he bought not only 10 chimichangas but two burritos as well.

From there he stopped at a convenience store, where for $16.70 he filled the gas tank of the car he purchased when he got his raise to $7.25; then he went to another grocery store, where he got a $21.78 money order to pay down some bills, including $8,000 in medical bills from the day he accidentally sliced open several fingers with a knife while trying to cut a tomato; and then he headed toward the family trailer 19 miles away, where his parents were waiting for dinner.

Today in Washington, the House is scheduled to vote on whether to increase the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25. Passage is expected, with Senate approval soon to follow, and if President Bush signs the resulting bill into law, as he indicated he would, the U.S. minimum wage would rise for the first time since 1997, ending a debate about whether such a raise would be good or bad for the economy.

But even if the matter is settled in Congress, it isn't settled at all in Atchison, and Robert Iles's drive home is proof. Every stop he made on his ride home revealed a different facet of how complicated the minimum wage can be in the parts of America where, instead of a debatable issue, it is a way of life.

At the store where Iles works, for instance, the owner thinks the minimum wage should be increased as a moral issue but worries about which employees' hours he will have to cut to compensate.

At the store where he bought the chimichangas, the cashier who makes $6.25 worries that a raise will force her out of her subsidized apartment and onto the street.

At the convenience store where he bought gas, the owner worries that he will have to either raise prices, angering his customers, or make less money, "and why would I want to make less money?"

At the store where he got the money order, the worries are about Wal-Mart, which not only supports an increase but also built a Supercenter on the edge of town that has been sucking up customers since it opened three years ago.

As for Iles -- who keeps $70 out of every paycheck to cover two weeks' worth of food and gas and in a matter of minutes was already down to $26.54 -- his worry was as basic as how fast to drive home.

Drive too fast and he'd be wasting gas. But his family was waiting. And his chimichangas, best cooked frozen, were starting to thaw.

The Meaning of a Dollar

The debate about the minimum wage usually comes down to jobs. If Congress approves the increase, it will result in raises for an estimated 13 million Americans, or about 9 percent of the total workforce. That's a percentage that most economists agree would cause a modest increase in national unemployment. In Kansas, however, "it would have a fairly significant impact," said Beth Martino, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor. According to one independent analysis, 16 percent of the workforce, or 237,000 workers, would be affected -- and that doesn't include the 20,000 whose wages aren't governed by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and earn the state minimum wage of $2.65. That rate, the lowest in the nation and unchanged since 1988, hints at the prevailing wisdom in Kansas about the minimum wage, which is that the only way low-wage earners will make more is through congressional action.

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