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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)

This holds true from Topeka, where the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce has long opposed any raise, to rural Mulvane, home of Republican state legislator Ted Powers, who says his futile effort three years ago to raise the state minimum wage resulted in his being branded a "dirty dog," to Atchison, a working-class city of 11,000 where the stores that depend on low-wage workers include one called "Wow Only $1.00!" This is the store where Robert Iles has worked for five years.

"Robert, would you help me a second?" Jack Bower, the owner, called to Iles soon after opening, as the line at the cash register grew. A onetime Wal-Mart vice president, Bower moved back to Atchison several years ago to teach and ended up buying the old J.C. Penney store, and now runs a business where the meaning of a dollar is displayed on shelf after shelf. The jar of Peter Piper's Hot Dog Relish? That's what a dollar is worth. The Wolfgang Puck Odor Eliminator that a customer was looking at as she said to a friend, "I just don't know how I'm ever going to make it. My ex-husband's not paying his child support"? That's a dollar, too, as is the home pregnancy test, the most shoplifted item in the store.

"This is not a wealthy community," Bower explained. "The thing is, a lot of people depend on this store."

Robert Iles has his own version of a dollar's meaning, learned last February when Bower took him aside and said he would be getting a pay raise to $7.25. "Okay," Iles remembers replying, wanting to seem businesslike. "But inside I was doing the cha-cha-cha," he said. "It was like going from lower class to lower middle class."

Soon after, he bought his car, a used 2005 Dodge Neon, and just about every workday since then he has spent his lunch break in the driver's seat, eating a bologna sandwich with the engine off to save gas, even in winter. An hour later, he was back behind the cash register, telling customers "Thank you and have a nice day" again and again.

And meanwhile, Jack Bower wondered whose hours he will cut if he has to give his employees a raise.

It's not that he's against raising the minimum wage -- "I don't think $5.15 is adequate," he said, adding that $7.25 seems fair -- but his profit margin is thin, and wages are his biggest controllable expense. So if wages go up, he said, hours will have to come down, and the question will become: Whose?

Will it be Neil Simpson, 66, who works six hours a day as a stockman, and then five more hours somewhere else cleaning floors, and takes care of a wife who is blind and arthritic?

Will it be Susan Irons, 57, who was infected with hepatitis C from a blood transfusion, is on a waiting list for a liver transplant and needs more hours rather than fewer?

Will it be Christina Lux, who is 22 years old and 13 weeks pregnant?

Will it be Iles?

"Attention, all shoppers," he said into the microphone. "We will be closing in 10 minutes. Please begin making your final selections." Ten minutes later, he was clocked out and back in his Neon. "My brand-new car," he called it proudly, and he explained how he was able to afford it on $7.25 an hour: a no-money-down loan for which he will pay $313.13 a month until 2012.

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