Feature in Christian Science Monitor profiles Oklahoma working poor

Check out this two-part story that serves as background on the minimum wage bill to be before Congress this week. It begins with a portrait of a “working poor” family in Muskogee.

Life at America’s bottom wage
Mark Trumbull Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Choice excerpt:

Few states will see a greater impact than Oklahoma. As of last year, the Sooner
State led the nation in the share of hourly workers (4 percent) who earn no more
than $5.15 per hour.

That means many families such as the Hosiers will see a boost in pay if the law
changes. But it means that negative ripple effects will also be magnified, as
businesses confront a big jump in labor costs. Many employers will have to raise
prices, and some are likely to hire fewer people as a result.

In the end, the law may exert only a modest influence on the arc of Oklahoma’s
economy, experts say. (The income gains and job setbacks would be greater if the
hike, say, doubled the wage instead of boosting it by the proposed 40 percent.)

Part 1 | Part 2

(MUSKOGEE, OKLA.)It’s the kind of December evening when the Hosier family might want to stay home.

At work all day, John Hosier has been resting on the living-room couch. Tina, his wife, has had her hands full taking care of their two young children. Yet, here they are, rolling 18-month-old Rose in a stroller with 5-year-old Donald tagging along, on a half-mile walk to the Salvation Army Church in Muskogee, Okla.

It’s not just a place of worship and fellowship. The Salvation Army’s affiliated store offers discounted goods and employs Mr. Hosier full time. The $6-an-hour job is the family’s sole paycheck, which amounts to barely $200 a week. Even with government aid, such as food stamps, the family is on poverty’s doorstep. “If it wasn’t for the Salvation Army, I don’t know where I’d be,” Hosier says.

Wednesday, Congress formally begins considering helping families like the Hosiers by raising the nation’s minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, up from the $5.15 rate that has held steady since 1997.

By one estimate, the expected hike would directly affect the paychecks of 6.6 million low-wage workers like John Hosier. Another 8 million workers have wages that, while a bit too high to be forced upward by the law, stand to gain from an upward ripple effect when the wage floor is adjusted.

A glimpse into the lives of people who live at bottom-rung pay rates illustrates why, to supporters of the change, the minimum wage is long overdue for a raise. But it also reveals that such a boost isn’t a one-step solution for the challenges that face America’s poorest workers.

In fact, many families are poor today even though they earn far above $7.25 an hour.

“Until you’re making $10 or $12 an hour, if you’re [a single-income household] with dependents, you’re going to have a really tough time making ends meet without public assistance,” says David Blatt, a poverty expert at the Community Action Project of Tulsa County, about 40 miles from Muskogee in the state’s northeastern section. Oklahoma family’s needs: $33,000

Oklahoma doesn’t have high living costs, compared with some other states. But to cover the basic needs of a family of four here typically requires an income of more than $33,000, according to an online budget calculator created by the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

At $5.15 an hour, it would take three full-time jobs for a family to earn that much.

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