Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has embraced her role as de facto spokeswoman for the progressive arm of the Democratic freshmen headed to Washington in January. She hasn’t entirely chosen that role; it seems every statement or action from her is amplified by both her supporters and critics in a way that’s ... unusual for a new member of the House.
The result, though, can be a spotlight shining on things that are otherwise in the dark.
Consider the revelation that Ocasio-Cortez was having trouble affording housing in Washington. Over this past week, that concern expanded outward: On Twitter, she pointed out that she wasn’t alone and that many Hill employees had to work second jobs to afford to live in the city.
“Time to walk the walk,” she wrote. “Very few members of Congress actually pay their interns. We will be one of them.”
It was only right, she said in another tweet, for Congress to pay staff “an actual DC living wage.”
That concept — a wage high enough to actually support someone — is not new to Ocasio-Cortez. It’s been a rallying cry among progressives for some time, highlighting that the minimum wage in many places isn’t enough to actually support a family, once housing, food and other expenses are considered. In many places, it’s not even enough to support one young adult without kids, presumably like many of the people who might intern on Capitol Hill.
MIT’s Living Wage Calculator assesses the cost of living in every county in the country, determining the necessary hourly wage for individuals and families in each location. Mapped, key urban areas stand out as more expensive than others: New York City, the San Francisco Bay area and, of course, D.C.
The living wage in D.C. is estimated to be just below $18 an hour for both parents in a family of four.
D.C. residents have one advantage that people in those other cities don’t. In the capital, the higher minimum wage means the gap between what an employee makes at a minimum and what he or she needs to pay rent and afford food is lower than elsewhere. In D.C. the gap is $5.34. In San Francisco, it’s almost $13.
But, of course, that higher minimum wage doesn’t help interns who receive no salary.
If we compare the living wage in each county for a single adult with the minimum wage, the D.C. region broadly — including the Virginia and Maryland suburbs — stands out negatively for how the minimum wage compares with what’s actually required.
That gap between what’s offered and what’s needed is generally higher in more urban areas than more rural ones, a function, in large part, of those housing costs that have frustrated Ocasio-Cortez.
In Tulare County, Calif., for example, part of the agricultural Central Valley in that state, the minimum wage is $11 an hour and the living wage is $16.74 for both parents in a family of four. Housing costs in the county make up less than half of an annual salary on minimum wage.
Head northwest for an hour or two and you get to San Mateo County on the San Francisco peninsula. There, the minimum wage is the same, but the living wage jumps to $23.79 — mostly because of housing. In San Mateo, housing eats up more than 150 percent of an annual minimum wage.
The D.C. area has a similar problem: Housing eats up a lot of a basic wage. The capital region, like the Bay Area, stands out.
How expensive is housing? Ocasio-Cortez represents parts of the New York City boroughs of the Bronx and Queens, counties where 90 percent of annual minimum wage salaries would cover average housing costs for a family of four.
When New Yorkers are struggling to figure out housing costs in another city, there’s a problem.