Mychelle Staley came home from volleyball tryouts Wednesday and asked her mom for 50 cents. She wanted to buy a bag of hot fries the next day.
That reminded her brother, Daviaun Gary, 11, that he needed $15 to pay for an instrument in music class at Curtis Middle School in Wichita, which they both attend.
“Yes, sweetie,” said LaTasha Staley, 35, their mother. “But I don’t I get paid until Friday.”
“Oh, yeah,” Daviaun said.
This was no surprise. Staley’s three children know that if a new movie is coming out, their mom will probably tell them to wait until it’s out on DVD.
“They say, ‘Momma, we understand, we’re good,’” Staley said. “It hurts a lot. I try, but it’s a struggle sometimes.”
That’s because, even after working full time for seven years at the East YMCA preschool, she only earns $8.26 an hour. That works out to about $1,000 per month after taxes; $850 of that goes to rent, utilities, a family phone plan and gas.
So Staley has to stretch the remaining $150 to buy soap and toilet paper, clothes and school supplies, not to mention the $210 for Daviaun’s soccer team, or the $350 to find out what is wrong with the broken-down Chevy that’s been sitting in her driveway the last four months.
Even though Staley makes slightly more than the minimum wage of $7.25, she and many others like her live in poverty. President Obama has proposed raising the federal minimum to $10.10, which the Congressional Budget Office projected would increase the salaries of more than 16 million Americans.
While many are high school students or adults starting out in their careers, more than half are over 25, and nearly a third work more than 35 hours a week.
The problem is even more acute in Kansas: 20 percent more Kansans earn at or below the minimum wage than the nation as a whole. An estimated 40,000 Kansans in 2014, two-thirds of whom were women, earned the minimum or below.
But Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, has not been able to get his most recent minimum wage proposals up for a discussion in Kansas, he said.
It’s not just liberal politicians who are concerned. The nation’s top bankers at the Federal Reserve have further delayed raising interest rates in large part because, even as unemployment has fallen to its lowest level in seven years, wages have not kept pace.
A report Wednesday by the National Employment Law Project shows that while wages for all workers have stagnated the past five years, low-wage workers have been hit the hardest. And the number of low-wage workers will continue to grow, according to the report: Half of the occupations projected to add the greatest number of jobs by 2022 are in the lowest-paying sectors.
Some cities such as St. Louis have started passing their own minimum wage laws. Incremental increases of the minimum wage are not new, although the recent municipal ones are historically generous. The $11 wage that St. Louis passed Aug. 28, after inflation, is higher than the federal minimum wage’s high point of around $10 in 1968.
In the past year a handful of cities, such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have raised their minimums to $15 an hour, an increase that is redefining what is an acceptable level of poverty for those who work, even as the overall economic impact of these unprecedentedly large increases remains unclear.
For now, Staley says she has to depend on the support of family members, neighbors, coaches and government programs to be able to feed her kids.
Staley’s uncle drove by with a wrinkled dollar bill that he handed to her as she walked her kids home from the park. For tomorrow, at least, Mychelle, 13, would be able to buy a bag of chips at school.
Relying on others
Staley has found a way to give her kids a few of the things they ask for. But she can only do it with substantial help.
Now that her car is broken down, Staley relies on her mom, Jackie, to drive her to and from work at 8 a.m and 5:30 p.m. every day, and to drive her children to and from school.
Zreviawn, 7, Staley’s third child, gets dropped off for an hour of government-funded day care before and after school, and the kids all eat school lunch for free.
She relies on her children’s coaches to give them rides home from practices, and sometimes to drive them to games on the weekends when she can’t.
The government paid for the hot dogs, ketchup and fruit snacks they ate when they arrived home a little after 6 p.m. on Wednesday. Medicaid paid for Daviaun’s inhaler that was lying on the bureau in the living room.
Staley finds a way to pay for the electronics in their house by waiting in long Black Friday lines and paying for them on layaway in increments of $30.
But now there was something she hadn’t been expecting.
“Are you playing in these?” Staley asked Daviaun, holding up his soccer cleats. “You know they are messed up. Does your coach have an extra pair of cleats you can wear?”
Daviaun pulled off his headphones and asked her to repeat herself.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
“OK, go take a shower,” she said. She wouldn’t have the money to buy him new cleats until the alimony money came in.
Staley said her relationships with her children’s fathers ended in large part because she didn’t have time or patience for men who don’t work or provide any economic benefit to the family.
“Instead of having three kids you have four,” she said.
Daviaun’s dad is supposed to pay alimony of around $123 a month, Staley said, but it’s not always on time or in full. But she is happy that he’s a presence in his life and even lets Zreviawn tag along.
The kids help with the dishes, a chore they love, and when Staley falls asleep on the couch out of exhaustion, Mychelle will often have made sure the boys are already in bed.
In the past year, they were able to move out of a two-bedroom apartment that cost $575 a month and back into Staley’s childhood home at only $350 a month. It’s the same price Staley’s mom paid for the first 20 years of Staley’s life, and well below the other three-bedroom houses Staley saw. Staley’s grandpa is the landlord.
No extra cash
Because she has so little savings, Staley frequently ends up paying her bank a $26 overdraft fee to make sure the utilities stay on until her next check comes through.
She does not qualify for a credit card, so that means instead of renting a movie at the Red Box for $1.50, she buys one of the DVDs that are under $12 at Wal-Mart.
If Staley wants to get a higher salary at work, there is a course she can take for $150 and then be tested on for another $300. If she passes, she said she was told that she’ll be reimbursed for half of those costs, but that there is no guarantee her salary will increase.
“I’m a single parent,” Staley said. “I don’t have all that extra cash to pay out of my pocket. I’ve tried to explain this so many times.”
Staley ran track in high school, just like her mom, but was diagnosed afterward with a heart murmur and left Butler Community College after getting pregnant with Mychelle at 21 to work full time.
She took low-wage jobs at Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart and T-Mobile to support her family before a friend told her about a summer camp job with the YMCA in 2008.
Staley’s mom, Jackie, also dropped out of college but finished her degree many years later as an adult; Jackie now works for the Urban League of Wichita.
But Staley doesn’t see how she’s supposed to save enough money for college, one of the primary means of escaping low-wage work in the modern economy, when she only has $150 of the $350 saved up to figure out what’s wrong with the car that she would need to drive to class.
A person’s worth
Staley’s current class of 2- and 3-year-olds at the YMCA was working on the five senses this week, which meant on Wednesday they had to decide whether the Granny Smith or the Red Delicious apples were sweet or sour.
She fed them breakfast at 8 a.m., taught them to use the toilet, helped them ride scooters, chased after them at recess and read to them before she left at 5:30 p.m.
For those who think a person is only worth whatever salary he or she gets paid, Staley has a message:
“I am with these kids 10 hours a day. I am the one potty-training them. I am the one wiping the booboos and the elbows,” and when even the parents struggle to control their own children, “I will calm that child down. I am not worth 8 dollars.”
If Staley’s wage was raised a couple of dollars, such as in St. Louis, she said she would fix her car so she did not have to depend on her mom to drive her and her children everywhere.
But if Staley’s wage was raised to $15, like in Seattle, she said, she could get the government out of her life and get off food assistance. She has to regularly report her income to keep receiving government assistance.
Just before Mychelle wrestled her two smaller brothers into a giggling submission, and they all finally went to bed Wednesday, she said she wished she had a bigger house. Well, mostly a bigger closet. She is spoiled, she admits, because she is the oldest and the only girl.
On $8.26 an hour, Staley has convinced her daughter that she is being spoiled.
“For a single parent my momma is doing good,” Mychelle said. “But she doesn’t get paid enough.”
Gabriella Hendren, 20
Current job and salary: Delano Barbeque Co., $8 an hour, about 25 hours a week. Around $600 a month after taxes.
Previous jobs: McAlister’s Deli, $7.25; Longhorn’s Steakhouse, $8-$10 after tips; babysitting, $5; Sheplers Western Wear, $7.25.
Monthly expenses: Car insurance $50, car payment $131, car repairs $500 (over three months), gas $160, phone $70.
What she would spend a higher wage on: Moving out of her house. She was home-schooled starting in 2005 and lives with her mom, uncle and grandparents.
“Since there is always someone home, there is always a TV on, there is always someone talking. It would be nice to have that moment of solitude on your own, if you wanted to study.”
Ideal profession: Law enforcement.
Biggest recent change: She recently accepted her first office job at Wolters Kluwer, which will start her off at $10 an hour with more regular hours than at Delano, and she said her salary will eventually go up to $12 an hour.
Tevin White, 24
Current job and salary: All My Sons Moving & Storage, $9 an hour. Hours vary but averages $200-$250 per week.
Previous jobs: FedEx, United Commerce Transport, Popeye’s.
Highest salary: $11 at FedEx but not enough hours.
Monthly expenses: Rent $375 (split with girlfriend), phone $60, electric $75-$130 (split), food/diapers/etc. $320-$350, clothing $40 or less.
What he would spend extra money on: Fixing his car and replacing the cracked screen on his phone.
How he became a mover: “My father was a mover the majority of his life. He always taught me that moving is a trade. No matter where you go, somebody has to be moved. It stuck with me.”
Recent adversity: He injured his knee moving a treadmill this week but couldn’t miss work.