by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Embattled Illinois governor Pat Quinn will be living on the minimum wage this week.
Well, sort of. Quinn, a Democrat, won’t actually earn the minimum wage — he will continue to pull down the governor’s salary of $177,412, live in the governor’s mansion, and be chauffeured around town. But he will pretend to earn just $79 this week, the amount that activists claim is left from the state’s $8.25 per hour minimum wage after deducting housing, transportation, and taxes.
It’s not really surprising that Quinn would be the latest politician to take up this silly stunt — polls show him running an average of 7 points behind his Republican challenger, Bruce Rauner — but he’s hardly alone these days. Others who’ve taken the “minimum-wage challenge” include Democratic representatives Tim Ryan of Ohio and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Democratic former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, and virtually the entire D.C. city council. This follows on the heels of the “food-stamp challenge,” in which otherwise-wealthy politicians ate SpaghettiOs for a week and all those Hollywood celebrities’ showing solidarity with the homeless by spending a well-photographed night on the street before heading back to their palatial homes.
As someone who actually did earn minimum wage many years ago, right after graduating from college, I can save all these folks a lot of time and effort: It is hard to live on the minimum wage. In fact, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to try to support a family for any length of time on nothing except the minimum wage.
Which is why it’s a good thing that almost no one does.
Barely one-fifth of those earning the minimum wage are heads of households supporting a family, according to a 2012 Cato study, and they are generally very young. Only 4.7 percent of minimum-wage workers were over the age of 25, working full-time as a single earner, and trying to raise a family. And these families are seldom living on minimum wage alone: Almost all of them are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and likely other social-welfare assistance.
The minimum wage is generally an entry-level wage for those with few skills or a limited work history. Few of those who start out earning minimum wage remain at that level for long: Nearly two-thirds will receive a raise within a year.