Friday was the final day of the Working America Minimum Wage Challenge, during which Minnesota Rep. Jason Metsa lived on a budget of $7.25 an hour for one week. Previously, Rep. Metsa made a budget, went grocery shopping, looked for housing, and met with Minnesotans who are living on minimum wage.
On his last day, Rep. Metsa’s challenge was to do something he usually took for granted: go home at the end of the week.
Metsa hails from the Iron Range, specifically Virginia, MN, and it’s about a three hour drive from the capital. On the budget he had set out at the beginning of the week, he had $268 a month for transportation. “Most people would have a car payment, but luckily I don’t, because my car is a ’99,” he told us.
He does have an insurance payment of $138 a month, which leaves him $32 a month for gas and maintenance; not enough even to get around on the metro during the work week and also get him home.
And then there’s maintenance. “I need an oil change, but there’s no way to do that on this budget,” Metsa commented. “Just before I started the Challenge, I put $1,800 into the car – on minimum wage I’d have to take out a payday loan to cover that. And that’s not ideal for a low-wage worker, with the high interest.”
It was sobering for Metsa that on a minimum wage budget, he’d literally have to take out a loan in order to make it home. “This budget has no room for mistakes, no room for an emergency, and it’s almost an extra job to make sure I’m spending each penny wisely,” he said.
“If I really was on minimum wage, I probably wouldn’t have a car,” Metsa continued, “I’d probably use the extra money to secure housing. Without housing, considering any other part of this budget is impossible.”
So without a car, Metsa would have to work either walking distance from his home or somewhere that was metro or bus accessible. This is feasible in St. Paul near his current job at the Minnesota House, but impossible in Virginia and other parts of the Iron Range (and much of the country) where adequate, affordable, public transit is nonexistent.
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Tags: minimum wage, minimum wage challenge, Minnesota, transportation
A beat-up van pulls to a stop just up the road. A creaky screen door opens from the apartment at the end of the building. A young African-American girl runs out toward the van, barely hanging onto a large gym bag that was obviously not meant for such a pint-sized carrier. The driver of the van, a middle-aged white man with glasses and a beard, throws the passenger door to the van open and the little girl tosses the bag onto the floor before climbing in. The apartment door, which had banged shut in the meantime, creaks open again as the girl’s mother waves goodbye.
“Be good. Have fun,” she tells her daughter.
“I’ll have her back by eight,” the driver replies as the little girl shuts the van door and waves goodbye to her mom.
As the van pulls away and disappears around a turn up the street, the girl’s mother allows herself to slump against the door frame for just a moment. She lets go of a long sigh that betrays just how tired she is. She almost doesn’t notice me as I approach her door to introduce myself.
I ask her how she’s doing. I tell her I’m out in the community tonight with Working America to gather support for public education in Pennsylvania.
Even if you don’t live here, you probably know the story. Governor Tom Corbett and his allies in the legislature have cut nearly a billion dollars from public education, hiked tuition at state universities up to 40 percent, and pushed a voucher plan that will further gut public schools. I don’t have to tell this young mother.
“I know,” she says. She glances in the direction of the van’s departure. “My daughter does gymnastics after school. Loves it. They told us they’ll probably have to cut back next year.” She pauses a moment, perhaps considering just what that means. “I can’t afford to send her to a private dance studio. What’s she going to think when I tell her she just has to quit? What are any of our kids going to do after school when they cut all these programs?”
I can tell there’s another question she’s probably too proud to ask, which is, “What am I going to do when there’s no more gymnastics class?” She works all day. She obviously came home and made sure her daughter had dinner and did her homework and had everything ready for the gym. The long sigh as the van pulled away and the moment she allowed herself to rest against the door frame were the first moments she’d had to herself all day. I feel bad for interrupting it.
But she is more than eager to help. She signs up to become a member of our fight for Pennsylvania’s public schools. She writes out a letter by hand telling her state senator what she had just finished telling me. She asks him what she’s supposed to tell her daughter when she can’t send her to gymnastics anymore.
And then she thanks me. Wishes me luck. I can only thank her and tell her we’ll be doing all we can to make sure that’s a question she never has to answer.
As I walk away, I wonder if “all we can” will be enough and if it will be in time for this proud, tired woman and her energetic, hopeful little girl.
This is just one story that I have to share from my first week in training to be a field organizer for Working America. The office is an hour’s drive from where I’m currently living and I’ll probably have to move for the second time in a year to keep at it. But the people I’ve met and the stories I’ve heard in just my first week of training have convinced me that it’s the absolute right decision. I’ve spent too much time reading from books and pondering the possibilities. It’s time to get on the ground and join in the fight. And it’s a fight we absolutely have to win.
One street over from the mother and her little girl, I pass by building after building of empty apartments. Many have huge padlocks on doors decorated with the faded, tattered remains once brightly-colored utility shut off warnings and notices. Some of the windows are boarded up, but through the broken ones you can see the evidence of a place long abandoned. Paint peeling off the walls. Piles of trash on the floor. A broken stair. But this place was abandoned long before the apartments were empty.
I am surprised as the first door in a long time actually opens. A middle-aged white woman tells me her story.
She’s about to lose her job. Not because she’s lazy or incompetent or because she’s unwilling to work. She’s about to lose her job because she can no longer get to work.
It’s not just education that’s being cut here. They already cut back on mass transit. This small, previously middle-class community no longer has bus service.
“I don’t have a car,” she says. “Always took the bus to work.” She’s done things “the right way.” She never asked for a government handout. She worked at a low-wage job to support herself. It was enough for a small apartment and to pay the bills, but it wasn’t enough to buy a car – let alone afford the state mandated insurance payments on one on top of it. She’s been getting rides from friends or family when she can now, but she’s already missed work several times. Now her boss is saying she’s “unreliable.” She confesses she probably doesn’t have much time before she joins the ranks of the unemployed.
She, too, is very helpful. She signs onto our fight for education and good jobs and quality healthcare, even though she says she doesn’t believe it will change anything. She, too, writes a letter to her state senator. She, too, thanks me before I can thank her.
I’m touched as I walk away. I know this is a battle we have to fight even if we lose. I shudder at the thought of walking down this same street a month or a year from now and seeing a padlock on this woman’s door.
A few nights later, in a neighborhood consisting of streets lined with small suburban houses with well-kept front yards and even tiny little back yards where neighbors still gather together on front porches or out on their lawns, one could see the planted battle flags of the plutocracy in the “for sale” and “foreclosure” signs stamped into the yards of houses that are now empty. Fewer padlocks here, of course, and more spread out. Perhaps I should have done an accurate statistical tally. One in fifteen houses, maybe? Perhaps on the way to one in ten? After all, I talked with several people who had been laid off and were nearing the end of their unemployment benefits. No new jobs to be found, at least not jobs that could keep up with a house payment. And no, we’re not talking about people who went out and bought McMansions with loans they could never have paid back. We’re talking about very modest middle-class homes affordable on modest middle-class incomes. We’re talking the stuff of the old American Dream.
These people in the middle are waking up. Sure, there are some in those neighborhoods that have bought into Fox News and seem intent on punishing themselves and their neighbors with brutal budget cuts, all while worshiping the idle rich who dance across their television screens.
But most people in these middle-class neighborhoods realize they are getting screwed by the big corporations and the political power they wield. They know for a fact that they’re not lazy, that they’ve worked hard, that they’ve done all the things that they’re “supposed” to do. And yet many are just barely hanging on for dear life. Many are in danger of sliding down into those boarded up, vacant apartments just a mile or two away. And they voiced their support for those of us going door to door fighting for a quality public education for every Pennsylvanian. Their own kids and grandkids will be the ones who suffer if we lose it.
Just a little further west live the people who have fled these suburban, middle-class ghettos. In isolated communities with names like “Whispering Woods” you find winding streets lined with huge cookie-cutter mansions. It’s just a few miles from that neighborhood of abandoned apartments where you could film a post-apocalyptic movie without having to do much to dress the set. But it’s an entirely different world.
People with BMW’s parked in their driveways and huge plasma TV’s complain that government spends too much money. We all have to tighten our belts, they say. My kids go to private school. Why should I have to pay for public education? The unions have too much power. Teachers are overpaid. One person even went so far as to say, “Close the public schools. They’re worthless. The sooner we shut ‘em all down the better.”
If I could take one of them by the hand and walk up and down Juniper Street and Delaware Avenue where I began this diary, would they see? Would they really still demand more tax cuts if they were the ones who had to tell a little girl she had to give up gymnastics? Would they still demand drastic budget cuts if they had to tell that quickly aging single woman to walk five or ten miles to work alone?
There’s only one road leading out to the world of abandoned, padlocked apartments. There are only two leading into Whispering Woods. And now there are no bus stops in either. When will these people ever see each other face to face?
It’s our job to make the introductions. It’s our job to stand up and fight. It’s our job to head to the front lines and build support. It’s our job to bring communities back together again. It’s our job to take up a pen as a sword and a clipboard or iPad as a shield and to hold the line.
It’s our job to tell a little girl she can still take gymnastics.
Tags: budget cuts, Education, Jobs, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Tom Corbett, transportation
During the 2010 campaign, now-Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) railed against government spending. Shortly after his election, he proudly rejected federal funds that would have helped build a high-speed rail route between Milwaukee and Madison.
Well wouldn’t you know it: That rail money opened its bedroom window last night and saw Gov. Walker holding a boombox over his head playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.”
But seriously, Scott Walker is now seeking rail funds to upgrade Amtrak’s Chicago-to-Milwaukee Hiawatha line, some of which he rejected just four months ago. The funds were then offered to Florida to connect Tampa Bay and Orlando, but Gov. Rick Scott (who also campaigned against government spending in 2010) turned it down as well. Now the money is back on the table, and the US DOT has received applications from many cash-strapped Midwestern states.
Walker’s “I want you back” declaration is the latest in the high-speed rail soap opera that has generated a lot of political headlines but not a single job.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who was Walker’s general election opponent last fall, is genuinely pleased with the news, but his fellow Milwaukee Democrat, Alderman Robert Bauman, feels differently:
Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman criticized Walker for applying for the same stimulus dollars he scoffed at earlier. The $810 million would have expanded public transportation to new parts of the state, Bauman said, yet Wisconsin “kicked in the face of the federal government” by rejecting the dollars as an example of government run amok.
“Now we here we’re applying for the same federal stimulus money, the exact same source of money, and somehow this is wonderful and good and this is going to promote the economic fortunes of southeastern Wisconsin,” he said.
It’s hard to be truly disdainful of a job-creating rail project. I would love to see some of Milwaukee’s many laid-off construction workers get back to work. But Bauman is right: those guys could’ve been back to work months ago if Walker hadn’t been busy posturing.
This is what you have to remember about Scott Walker and the other union-busting governors: It’s not about the economy, it’s not about jobs, it’s not even about the deficit. It’s about politics. A few months ago Scott Walker wanted to stand up to the Obama Administration and receive a round of golf claps from the Beltway GOP. But after driving Wisconsinites into a recall frenzy, he’s realizing he might have to do something truly radical: his job.
Tags: Jobs, Scott Walker, transportation
Florida currently has an 11.9 percent unemployment rate, the third highest in the country. But in lieu of helping those Floridians who are out of the work, Governor Rick Scott chose to make a political statement.
Some background: After fierce competition last year, Florida won $2.4 billion in federal funds for a high speed rail (HSR) project connecting Orlando and Tampa Bay under the previous governor, Republican Charlie Crist. And it’s easy to see why a governor (of any party) would want to reel in the HSR project: the planned Tampa-Orlando line was projected to employ a whopping 10,000 workers and create more than 48,000 job-years during the construction period. Not just any jobs, either – high-paying, sustainable jobs in engineering, architecture, urban planning, and manufacturing.
In February, current Governor Rick Scott – whose 2010 campaign included a promise of creating 700,000 jobs in seven years – made the decision to spurn the federal funds and cancel the project, saying “the risk far outweighs the benefits.” I read through a whole slew of articles on the topic, and found that it was reported largely in political terms: He’s “standing up to the President” or “bolstering his conservative credentials.”
However, there hasn’t been much said about the connection between Scott’s rejection of the funds and stories like this, from the Eastern Florida city of Stuart:
More than 500 people filed resumes Monday at the Martin County Fairgrounds for a chance to work on the long-debated Indian Street Bridge project, which will begin in less than two weeks.
Port St. Lucie resident Gerald Mitchell, a carpenter who hasn’t had steady work in nearly two years, said he wanted to show his commitment by arriving at 4 a.m.
“I’ve been on this, I’ve been calling the Department of Transportation since ’08,” said Mitchell…
…[Contractor] Archer Western is looking to fill at least 60 positions.
And “500 resumes for 60 positions” is a relatively mild statistic. Stuart is on Florida’s well-to-do eastern “Treasure Coast” – think Palm Beach and Boca Raton. In Central Florida’s more working class Marion County, unemployment climbed to 14.2 percent earlier this year, driven by construction workers laid off since the housing bust.
Now Gerald Mitchell and hundreds like him are showing up at the crack of dawn wherever there’s a hint of construction work – and they’ve been doing so for years.
The punditry can talk of Rick Scott’s “spine,” and his “credentials,” and how he’s “standing up” to Obama by rejecting a job-creating project. Unemployed construction workers like Gerald Mitchell might not own a newspaper or host a cable talk show, but I’m sure he would much rather his governor stand up for them – and start placing something tangible behind that 700,000 jobs promise.
Tags: transportation, unemployment
Corporate America is taking advantage of low interest loans, and sitting on the money till the economy improves. From the NY Times:
Companies like Microsoft are raising billions of dollars by issuing bonds at ultra-low interest rates, but few of them are actually spending the money on new factories, equipment or jobs. Instead, they are stockpiling the cash until the economy improves.
The development presents something of a chicken-and-egg situation: Corporations keep saving, waiting for the economy to perk up — but the economy is unlikely to perk up if corporations keep saving.
American corporations have been saving more money since the financial collapse of 2008. But a recent rush of blue-chip bond offerings — including a $4.75 billion deal last month by Microsoft, one of the richest companies in the world — has put even more money in their coffers.
Corporations now sit atop a combined $1.6 trillion of cash, a figure equal to slightly more than 6 percent of their total assets. In the first quarter of this year it was 6.2 percent of assets, the highest level since 1964, when it was 6.4 percent.
They aren’t hiring, though. As I wrote about back in July, some of these corporations are using this opportunity to cut jobs, force unions to make concessions, and still make a tidy profit for the shareholders.
Still we keep hearing that the private sector is our best hope for job creation.
US transportation system failing, warns a story in today’s WaPo:
The United States is saddled with a rapidly decaying and woefully underfunded transportation system that will undermine its status in the global economy unless Congress and the public embrace innovative reforms, a bipartisan panel of experts concludes in a report released Monday.
U.S. investment in preservation and development of transportation infrastructure lags so far behind that of China, Russia and European nations that it will lead to “a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations for American prosperity in the long run.”
Which reminded me of Laura’s post last month, where she mentioned President Obama’s proposal to invest $50 million in updating road, rail, and air systems.
Think of the jobs that would be created! Instead, we’re being held hostage by myopic people who are more interested in scoring political points than actually solving the very real problems that face this country.