Politicians Try The Minimum Wage Challenge, Quickly Realize It's Unbelievably Difficult

Everything from housing prices to student debt continues to increase, yet it's been five years since Congress lifted the federal minimum wage. Currently, the federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 an hour, and efforts in Congress to increase it to more than $10 have stalled. So, three U.S. politicians, including Ted Strickland, decided to take the minimum wage challenge in their personal lives for one week. The result? Living on minimum wage is very, very difficult, they very quickly realized.

The fight for a viable "living wage" has ebbed across the United States over the last year, with some successes in major metropolitan areas. In June, Seattle became the city with the highest minimum wage when the city council approved a municipality-wide increase to $15 — twice as much the federal standard. The Washington, D.C. city council approved an $11.50 minimum wage last December, while cities such as San Francisco and Santa Fe have living wages nearing $11 an hour. However, no U.S. state comes close to these numbers, with most state minimum-wage laws hovering between $7.25 and $8.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.5 million American workers made exactly $7.25 an hour or lower in 2012. The Live the Wage Challenge states that these workers typically budget $77 for a week — the remainder of their paychecks after taxes and housing expenses.

As a way to urge their fellow leaders in Washington, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and Representatives Tim Ryan and Jan Schakowsky took the Live the Wage Challenge over the last week. Although going one week on this meager budget is not the same as living on it for years — where student or credit card debts often play a factor — the experience can be eye-opening for those far removed from the realities of the minimum-wage workforce.

With only $77 in their wallets, here's what each politician discovered...

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland

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For Strickland, one of the hardest parts about living on $77 was transportation — or lack thereof. The former governor admitted in an op-ed for Politico Magazine that he was used to taking cabs to his office and business appointments. But with only $77 a week to spend on everything from groceries to medicine, transportation had to take a backseat:

Wednesday morning, I had a meeting about a mile from my apartment, but in the opposite direction of my office. I would normally take a cab, but this time, I took off my jacket and walked the mile in 90-degree heat, then walked back almost 2 miles to my office. Walking made me late to my meeting, but a minimum wage budget doesn’t allow for extra transportation costs, making it my only option.

Of course, buying enough groceries for three meals, seven days a week was also difficult. Strickland writes that he mostly relied on eggs, toast, peanut butter and bologna because "fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find at a price within a minimum wage budget." There were no restaurants, Starbucks trips or take-out for him, save for the McDonald's $1 menu.

"These are just some of the small realities I have learned about life on the minimum wage," Strickland writes.

Rep. Tim Ryan

Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan has been keeping track of his minimum-wage life on his official Facebook page. He and his wife are both living on $77 this week, which means they have $154 to budget for their family. After shelling out some cash at the start of the week for prescription medicine for his baby, the family was left with $130:

For dinner last night, I bought two cans of sardines and a box of rice crackers (Cost $7). I like sardines so this was a good dinner. I picked them up at a market on Capitol Hill, so they were a little more expensive than usual, sardines are a just over a dollar in Ohio and in DC they were over two dollars each. Andrea and the kids had rice pasta (Cost $4) last night with vodka sauce (Cost $3) for dinner last night. We try to watch our gluten intake so we usually chose rice pasta; however, it is a little bit more expensive. The kids all had pancakes for breakfast yesterday (Cost $2) and cereal for breakfast today (Cost $3.50). For lunch, the crew back in Ohio finished the leftover pizza, deviled eggs and watermelon from yesterday's party. I was still in Washington, so I grabbed a piece of pizza for lunch at the cafeteria on Capitol Hill (Cost $3). It was not a good use of money, but I was starving and rationalized it because I didn't have breakfast.Andrea had $6 coupon, so she was able to buy milk and one cleaning supply from CVS. Then she signed up for another ($3) coupon by giving CVS her email, which means we have an extra $3 to spend over the next couple of days.

"If you’re representing people you should try to put yourself in their shoes," Ryan told MSNBC on Tuesday. "They can call it a stunt or a gimmick. The reality is that millions of people do it. The alternative is we look the other way, and we pretend it’s not a problem."

Rep. Jan Schakowsky

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Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky has also given the Live The Wage Challenge a go, sharing her updates on her social media channels. "You have to consider every penny," the congresswoman told Fox News last week. "You have to plan everything. There’s no spontaneity."

Like her fellow politicians, food has been a concern for Schakowsky, who said in a Facebook post that she has lost weight since starting the challenge last week:

Over the weekend I continued on the #LiveTheWage challenge. Mornings I had cereal & banana, for lunch I had tuna salad sandwich. Dinner was trickier. I continued to eat some leftover chicken I had prepared, but was careful not to have too much of anything as my food supply is running low. So far I have lost some weight, which is not bad for me, but must be tough for low wage workers all over the country. This challenge just gives me a glimpse into the life of a low wage worker. The point is $7.25 isn't enough to make ends meet.

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