The Hidden Costs|of Low Wages

     HOUSTON – What’s often lost in the debate is the effect that low-wage jobs have on families.
     Opponents of a federal minimum wage increase to $10 per hour are resolute in their insistence that it would force companies to lay off workers and raise prices for their products.
     When parents have to work two or three jobs, their children suffer.
     The parents have no time to show their kids the value of home-cooked healthy meals accompanied by fortifying conversation at the dinner table, no time to help them with their homework or guide them on how to deal with a school bully.
     For Ramona Luna, a 25-year-old with a baby face and easy smile, the decision to take on two jobs was all about her daughter’s medical needs.
     “My daughter has ADHD and I don’t have insurance, so I pay $265 a month for her medicine,” Luna said.
     But Luna said six weeks of working 12-hour days on a job at Little Caesar’s Pizza and another at Subway was not worth it. When she got home she saw her daughter only long enough to give her a bath and send her to bed.
     Luna quit the pizza job, where employees start at $7.25 an hour and get a 50-cent raise every six months.
     With only a ninth-grade education, Luna says she plans to get her GED and go to nursing school. She chuckled when I asked her about her neck tattoo, a large pair of dark red lips, and said, “I regret all my tattoos.”
     To hear academics tell it being poor goes hand in hand with making bad decisions.
     A recent Harvard University study found that the stress caused by living from paycheck to paycheck can diminish a person’s IQ by 13 points, and lead them to make poor decisions with their money, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
     This study belies what common sense should tell you: that being poor makes a person more resourceful.
     I see it every day in my working-class Houston neighborhood: the bald, lizard-like white man who set up an impromptu car wash at the corner store, his attention to detail clear in the gleam of the rims his rag whips over.
     The black woman rifling through trash outside the same store, gathering spent Lotto tickets, hoping to capitalize on a hasty or illiterate gambler’s willingness to toss a winning ticket.
     Being poor will make one more likely to grow their own vegetables, mend a ripped pair of jeans, collect and recycle cans and clip coupons.
     As a struggling college graduate in Northern California’s Humboldt County – a place of limited job opportunities, where the most common occupation for new grads is marijuana growing – I had many low-wage jobs: janitor, Motel 6 room cleaner, garden soil factory worker, rental car cleaner, landscaper, weed puller, furniture mover, newspaper deliveryman and freelance reporter.
     Two things those jobs taught me were humility and empathy for essential, but easily overlooked workers. There’s value beyond a paycheck in low-wage jobs, especially for a single person with not many expenses.
     But parents shouldn’t have to wear that many hats to support their families.
     Working too much can also ruin a person’s health.
     I met Sharon Freddie as I passed through the metal detectors at the courthouse where she worked security.
     A 42-year-old black woman who looks 12 years younger, Freddie’s smile and outgoing personality stood out among the gloom of her fellow security guards.
     With the fast-food worker strikes and Obama’s offensive against income equality heating up, Freddie told me she was hoping Congress could raise the minimum wage because her two jobs and seven-day work weeks were damaging her health.
     “I do the courthouse Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 5:00 p.m., and then on weekends I do Domino’s Pizza from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” Freddie said.
     Freddie said her doctor had been questioning her work hours due to her high blood pressure and edema in her feet.
     “They kept asking me all the time, ‘Can I quit two jobs? When was the last time I had an off day?’ And technically I don’t have an off day until … like I get sick, that’s my off day. Or if a holiday comes up.”
     As a resident of business-friendly Texas, Freddie has no hope of legislators raising the state minimum wage above the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour
     Republican legislators are unsympathetic to the plight of low-wage workers: Senate Republicans recently shot down a bill from President Obama to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
     When more than half of the members of Congress are worth more than $1 million, the fight to raise wages is best suited for the states.
     Meanwhile, low-wage workers in places like Texas will continue to struggle, as their health and their children pay the price.

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