Friday, August 22, 2014

A new challenge

While Googling around to see whether anyone else had ever done a Reverse SNAP Challenge like mine, I discovered a different, but related, challenge called Live the Wage. The idea behind it is to see whether you could get by on the minimum wage—$7.25 per hour. This works out to $290 for a week for a 40-hour week, but the designers of the challenge (a group called Americans United for Change) say that after taxes and housing costs, it leaves only $77 for all discretionary spending. The site invites people to try living on this budget for a week (specifically, the week of July 24) and write about their experiences. Several politicians, all Democrats, attempted it; you can read about their experiences on ABC News and CNN.

Like the original SNAP Challenge, Live the Wage seems to me to have several problems with its structure. After reading through the fact sheet, I came up with several quibbles:
  1. The challenge seems to be designed specifically for a single person. The fact sheet about the challenge says "the approximate weekly budget for someone earning the federal minimum wage is $77," so that's how much you have "to cover a week’s worth of your meals, groceries, transportation, and recreational spending." The "you" in this sentence is pretty clearly one person, and there's no information on the site about how to adapt the challenge for a couple or a family. Do you just assume you have two wage earners, both earning minimum wage, and thus your weekly budget is $77 per wage earner? Or are you supposed to pretend that you have one wage earner struggling to support the rest of the family on a $290 paycheck? What about your housing expenses—are you supposed to assume those are exactly twice as high as they would be for a single person? (The CNN story says Representative Tim Strickland, who took the challenge, went with a budget of $154 per week for his five-person household, but it's not at all clear from the website that this is the approved way to do it.)
  2. The website says the $77 budget is based on a $290 paycheck minus the "average" costs for taxes and housing, but it doesn't explain how the group came up with these numbers. The figure for taxes is probably a reasonable one; there are lots of tax calculators on the Web, such as this one, that you can use to work out the tax on a $290 paycheck. But using some arbitrary "average" cost for housing seems a bit unfair to me. When you're trying to get by on a low income, probably the single most important thing you can do is to cut your housing costs down to the minimum, whether by sharing a house with five roommates, cramming into a one-bedroom with your sweetie, or staying home with good old Mom and Dad. By forcing you to assume you're paying the "average" cost of $176.48 a week (or about $756 a month), Americans United for Change is taking that budget-cutting strategy away from you.
  3. The minimum wage isn't the same everywhere. Here in New Jersey, for instance, it's $8.25 an hour rather than $7.25, and for good reason; the cost of living in New Jersey is higher than the national average. So if Brian and I were to try and live on a $77 budget, we'd have to pay above-average East Coast prices for food, transportation, and entertainment, but without the above-average minimum wage to support those costs.
  4. The biggest problem with the Live the Wage challenge is the same one I noted with the standard SNAP Challenge: it only covers a period of one week. Most people may buy groceries and gas at least once a week, but what about all the other expenses that come up less often than that? A monthly rent payment is presumably covered under "housing," but what about phone bills and utility bills? Are those lumped in with housing as well? How about insurance or maintenance for car owners? Those are expenses you know you'll have to pay sooner or later, but not every week; are you supposed to pro-rate them, setting aside a certain amount of your $77 to deal with them? If so, how much? What about other expenses, like clothing? That's something you obviously have to buy sometimes, but just as obviously don't have to buy every week; is it cheating to just put off all necessary purchases of clothing until the one-week challenge is over?
So, as with the SNAP Challenge, I'm not really sure this challenge is all that useful as a learning experience. I think we could do it quite easily; our current food budget, as we know from the Reverse SNAP Challenge, is around $55 a week, and our average spending on gas for the past three months works out to about $13 a week. That comes to only $68, less than half of our $154 budget for the two of us. We'd have 86 bucks left to cover all unusual expenses, whether strictly necessary (like a doctor visit), strictly optional (like a concert), or somewhere in between (like hardware and toiletries). As long as we didn't happen to get hit with a major, unexpected expense during the week, like a car repair or an emergency trip to the dentist, I can't see us having any real problems with it. But I can't see us really learning anything from it, either. The whole point of Live the Wage is supposedly "to give a glimpse into just how little the minimum wage provides a working family in this country"; as a two-income couple with no kids and a frugal lifestyle, I don't think we'd actually be glimpsing anything all that different from a typical week.

Still, it's always possible I'm being too sanguine. After all, I thought the Reverse SNAP Challenge would be a walk in the park, too, but at the end, I discovered that the produce we ate from our garden would have put us over budget if we'd had to buy it from a store. (We could still have made it through the challenge without it, but our food choices would have been different.) So perhaps there are similar lessons to be learned from the Live the Wage Challenge. In any case, there's only one way to find out. So I'm going to record all my expenditures for the next week, starting today, and see how I do. Even if I learn nothing from it, I'll at least get an easy week's worth of blog entries out of the deal.
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