Living below the poverty line with a minimum wage income

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Margarita Escareno, 37, lives in a small two-bedroom basement level apartment in Brighton Park with her four children. She shares a bedroom with her two daughters, ages 9 and 15, and her 8-year-old son so that her oldest son, 18, can have a room of his own.

Her husband was deported to Mexico two years ago. Her life, she remarks, is difficult and frustrating.

“I get very stressed out,” she says, “especially since I’m a single mother.”

Like thousands of families in Chicago, the Escarenos live below the poverty line. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services establishes poverty levels based on family size. Its 2014 level for a family of five is $28,000 per year.

Escareno, who works full time as a cook at Paco’s Taco, earns around $19,000 annually.

Her wage of $9.25 per hour, while higher than both federal and Illinois minimums, remains too low to lift the Escarenos out of poverty.

The family is not alone. According to U.S. Census data, almost 27 percent of Chicago families live in poverty, including a staggering 37 percent of all Hispanic female-headed single parent families.

Escareno, almost necessarily, struggles to make ends meet. “It is hard,” she says, “to live here in the city.”

She is optimistic, however, that the federal minimum wage will be increased and that she will have more money to provide for her family.

A current minimum wage worker in Illinois stands to earn just over $17,000 per year provided they work-full time each and every week, taking no vacation or sick time.

A wage increase to $10.10 per hour, the new minimum wage proposed by President Obama and supported by Gov. Quinn, increases that income to $21,000 per year.

Even with this increase, however, families like the Escarenos would still be impoverished.

Indeed, a report sent to Obama in February by the White House Council of Economic Advisors estimates the $10.10 minimum wage, even when coupled with tax credits, would only lift an estimated 2 million people across the poverty line by 2016.  Over 10 million people would remain below.

Raising minimum wage to $10.10 also does little to alleviate the relative high costs of living endured by the working poor.
Finding affordable housing, for example, is often difficult for low wage earners like Escareno. Housing costs are said to be affordable when the total cost of rent and utilities accounts for less than 30 percent of a household’s income.

According to this calculation, a single minimum wage earner in Chicago can only afford to pay $429 per month for rent. An increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 increases that number to $525. The real estate website Zillow.com currently lists only 36 Chicago properties with rental rates under this figure.

Escareno currently pays $600 per month for her basement level apartment, a rate far below area averages and yet still a cost she cannot afford.

In Chicago, the fair market rent (FMR) for a studio apartment is $727 per month according to the 2014 Out of Reach Report released in March by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The FMR for a two-bedroom apartment is $929 per month.

Based on these levels, a minimum wage earner in Chicago would need to work 68 hours per week to afford rent on an average studio and 91 hours per week for the average two-bedroom apartment.

Even at $600 per month, Escareno currently spends nearly 40 percent of her income on housing costs, leaving her little money to spend on familial necessities.

“It’s like we are in Mexico, just eating beans and tortillas,” said Escareno.

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