Democratic Congressmen Are Trying To Live On Minimum Wage And Finding It Very Hard
It was 4:25 p.m. and all Representative Tim Ryan had eaten so far were the few peanuts he foraged in a U.S. Capitol cloakroom.
His congressional salary is $174,000. But on Thursday, the six-term Ohio Democrat couldn’t afford lunch.
In a Congress thick with millionaires, Ryan and three other Democratic representatives are trying to live on the budget of a minimum wage worker this week in an effort to stir up attention to raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
Congressional Republicans have blocked the Democratic initiative, claiming it would kill jobs - a contention that is a topic of hot debate among politicians and economists.
With Congress winding down for the year and members mostly campaigning for re-election, this "week-in-the-life" stunt is more a push for votes in November's races than for lawmakers' votes on minimum wage legislation in 2014.
The federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 for five years, despite inflation, putting millions of people who work at fast-food restaurants and do other entry-level jobs below the poverty line.
So this week, the four lawmakers are living on just $77: a minimum wage worker’s average weekly budget for food, transportation, medical costs and entertainment after paying for housing and taxes.
On Wednesday afternoon, Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois struggled to open a can of tuna fish in her airy apartment in a tree-lined Capitol Hill neighborhood.
She’s lived there for 16 years, but says she "rarely" cooks – most of the time she and her husband dine at restaurants or order carry-out food.
"Lee, you can open this can for me," the congresswoman told a staffer after several unsuccessful minutes. She was making tuna salad with boiled eggs and onion.
"I think I put too much onion in," the longtime congresswoman said. But the onions were cheap: just 86 cents.
On her minimum-wage budget, Schakowsky can’t afford to pick up her laundry from the cleaners. She’s concerned about the $14.50 she’ll spend on gasoline driving to her granddaughter’s birthday party and even the 49 cents to mail her grandson a postcard at summer camp.
When she had friends over for dinner on Thursday, Schakowsky and her husband ate chicken and broccoli while the "guests" brought their own Thai takeout.
She said her dog, Lucky, definitely won’t be getting any steak this week.
Schakowsky, who takes medication for high blood pressure, warily eyed the nutrition labels on her packages of low-cost Rice-A-Roni and ramen noodles: 28 percent and 38 percent of recommended daily sodium intake, respectively.
On Thursday morning, Ryan was hit with a $24 prescription bill for his newborn baby - about 15 percent of his budget for himself, the baby, his wife and two stepchildren.
Ryan did not make it through a similar “Food Stamp Challenge” in 2007 after airport security agents threw away his peanut butter and jelly jars.
He said he is participating to "illuminate" moments many take for granted, especially in Washington, where politicians' and lobbyists' salaries are way above the national norm.
Representatives Barbara Lee of California and Keith Ellison of Minnesota joined Ryan and Schakowsky in the week-long experiment.
Polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage, and several states have upped their own minimum wage in recent months, including Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland and Michigan.
Republicans, hoping to broaden their voter appeal, have produced their own poverty-fighting plan: On Thursday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan advocated expanding the earned-income tax credit to include single earners.
As the four Democrats struggle to get through mornings without their Starbucks coffee, they kept their sights on the long-haul fight for a minimum wage increase.
“I hope the 64,000 workers in my district recognize that they need to be registered to vote and active for politics,” Ryan said. “We need their political support if we are to get this done.”
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