The short answer is yes. But that's a very qualified yes, because, you know, anything is possible. But is it in any way easy to live in Brooklyn making only minimum wage? No, absolutely not. In case the numbers are a little too abstract for you though, we thought we'd break it down so that you could see just how difficult it would be to try and live a completely independent life while making minimum wage in a borough where the average cost of rent is $3,000 per month. The results are actually kind of scary. Buckle up, we're in for a bumpy, theoretical budget planning ride.
The first thing you need to know is that minimum wage in New York state is $7.25/hour. However, legislation passed this past March which will raise minimum wage to $9/hour over the course of the next three years. What this means is, by the end of 2013, minimum wage will be up to $8/hour. Hooray? Sure. Hooray. Why not? Very few jobs pay only minimum wage though, with even fast food places paying an average of $8.94/hour to its workers. You don't need to be that good at math, though, to realize that this still isn't exactly what you'd call a livable wage, and this low salary is a huge reason that so many fast food workers walked out on their jobs two weeks ago. But as hard as it is to live off a salary like that in some place where you can rent an apartment for $400/month (yes, these places do exist, or so I'm told), how would it be possible to live off this type of salary in Brooklyn?
Well, let's say a minimum wage worker is making $7.25 per hour and is working 40 hours a week. That comes out to $1,160/month—pre-taxes. There's a good chance, however, that someone making this kind of money is doing so on a freelance basis, and is not paying taxes right away. So, to make it easier, let's just look at that number without subtracting taxes. Even assuming that this minimum wage worker could get away with finding a room to rent for $500/month, what about all the other basic costs of living? What about a Metrocard (at $112/month that's 10% of this worker's paycheck) or a cellphone (virtually a necessity at this point and even the most basic of phones costs about $40/month) and, you know, food that isn't Top Ramen? Food alone is going to set even the most budget conscious person back at least $75/week, or $300/month. Plus, there'll be splitting gas and electric fees and potentially having to deal with medical bills except, of course, you're not allowed to get sick because you just can't afford it. All in all, this is a pretty grim picture. And even raising the minimum wage to $9/hour is only going to increase a worker's monthly salary to $1,440/month. Better, I suppose, but not good. Not good.
Mother Jones, in a reaction to the fast food workers walk-out, created a calculator so that people can see how many hours per week they'd need to work at a fast food establishment in order to make their typical monthly salary. Just to pick a not-too-high salary at random, let's say you're making $35,000 per year. Let me guess, you're probably feeling underpaid, right? But also, you probably aren't working much more than 40-hour weeks, and you probably get to sit down during the day, and maybe even have benefits. Well, if you were a fast food worker, you'd have to work 75 hours each week to make that kind of money. 75 hours! And, as the Mother Jones article points out, most fast food workers are only working 25 hours a week, meaning they make under $12,000 per year.
And if you were making less than a fast food worker? If you were earning only minimum wage, how many hours per week would you need to work to make the suddenly luxurious sounding salary of $35,000/year? 93 hours per week. And, lest you forget, there are only 168 hours in the week. In order to work 93 hours, you'd have to work 7, 14 hour days, which means that after sleeping for eight hours (because you know you'll be exhausted) you'll have two hours for yourself. I'd assume those are spent commuting. And all this for $35,000/year.
If this is all completely mind-boggling to you and you can't fully conceive of how someone can make money on minimum wage or a fast food worker's salary, never fear! McDonalds created a fake budget for you to look at and model your life after. The budget (up above) is notable for a couple of things. It hilariously assumes that rent will be $600/month, and that cable/phone will only come in at $100. It also assumes that you're shelling out $150/month for car payments but nowhere does it factor in the cost of gas. Which, you know, that $150/month will be quite wasteful if you can't actually DRIVE ANYWHERE. But the most absurd thing about this budget is that it operates under the assumption that the average McDonalds worker is not able to survive at all without working two jobs. And because the first job's salary is listed at $1,105 and the second at $955, assuming the salary for both is (let's say) $9/hour, that means that this fictional McDonalds worker is working 58 hours each week, which works out to someone either putting in more than 11 hour-long work days five days a week, or more than 9 hour work days 6 days a week. I guess my main point here is, don't call it a livable wage when, in order to earn it, you can't really have a life.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen