Is $15 an Hour Enough for Workers to Support Their Families?

California and New York just passed a statewide $15 minimum wage, effective 2022. And Fight for 15 protestors in more than 300 cities demanded the same when they mobilized April 14.

Questions on whether businesses can afford to pay their workers more aside, is that pay even enough to support workers and their families?

Where Do You Live?

Not in all states, some say. In fact, if you consider the Alliance for a Just Society‘s numbers, $15 isn’t enough to get by in more than half the states in the US, especially for workers with families.

Nationally, the living wage is closer to $16.87 for someone working full time, they say, which fluctuates according to each state.

The Alliance defines a living wage as “one that allows families to meet their basic needs, without public assistance, and that provides them some ability to deal with emergencies and plan ahead. It is not a poverty or survival wage.”

Of course, as Dylan Petrohilos notes in ThinkProgress, that cost of living estimate has some cushion. While different calculations consider a studio apartment as the bare minimum for housing, the Alliance factors in rent for a one-bedroom space.

Furthermore, Petrohilos writes, “Though $15 may sound high, the minimum wage would be at $22.62 if it had kept up with the income gains of the top one percent. Raising the minimum wage to $22 would increase the price of a Big Mac by about a dollar.”

Who’s Affected?

Now, the federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised from $7.25 since 2009, and the wage minimum for tipped employees has stayed at $2.13 for over a decade.

A total three million workers make this federal minimum wage nationwide, with 20.6 million others following close behind by earning less than $10.10 an hour.

Fast food workers are among this low-wage class. They make an average of $8.94 an hour.

To live in Chicago on this wage, for instance, a worker’s annual income of $18,595 would be over the national poverty line for a family of two, but nowhere near secure. In fact, their monthly income would be nearly $3,000 short of providing for their basic budget listed, according the Economic Policy Institute.

The budget below represents the funds necessary for a safe, comfortable and modest standard of living in the Chicago area for a family with one parent and a 4-year old child, as determined by the EPI. The costs are determined by regional statistics and government data, and include fair market rates for housing and government food plans. (You can check your city here.)

Housing

$966

Food

$369

Child Care

$791

Transportation

$459

Health Care

$949

Other Necessities

$342

Taxes

$554

Monthly Total

$4,431

Annual Total

$53,168

Chart is from EPI. All figures are rounded.

No matter what the minimum wage increases to in the future, the status quo is unacceptable. For one, more than half the families of fast food workers across the nation need to rely on public assistance to supplement their paltry wages. This costs taxpayers more than $7 billion, according to a 2013 UC Berkeley study.

As Jared Bernstein at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities told me for a piece for Ms. Magazine: “In a sense, you’ve got what economists call a market failure. You have someone who’s making a good safe effort to do what all the politicians are telling her to do, which is go to work and don’t be dependent, and she can’t provide for her family.”

Finding a solution to that should be everyone’s priority, no matter what side on the political aisle they fall.