Trying to Make it Work on Minimum Wage

bandage-1235337_640Full-time work should provide for a family’s basic needs. But many working families in Buncombe County cannot afford the costs of housing, food, transportation, and health care. In fact, many working families live near or below the federal poverty line ($23,000 for a family of four). One of those families came into the Children First/CIS  Family Resource Center at Emma to speak to the facilitators about family economic supports, and agreed to this interview.

Alejendra and her husband both work 30 to 40 hours a week at $8.00 an hour. Alejandra works at a local restaurant as a prep-cook and her husband works in agriculture during the warm months, and in a recycling factory during the colder months. If Alejendra’s husband is able to work a full week without inclement weather or other interuptions, they can bring home about $1,920 a month. According to Federal Poverty Guidelines, for a family of three this annual income falls well below what the government would classify as “low-income” and within the federal classification for poverty.

They are raising their 7 year-old daughter with little to nothing left over at the end of the month. “I wish we could pay for her to do extra-curricular activities. She wants to join the folk-dancing group at her school, but it costs money for the outfits.”

They make barely enough to pay for their basic needs. “We live on a very tight budget, with no room for surprises or extras.” She prioritizes her payments as such: rental lot for housing, food, car insurance, and utilities. “Sometimes we have to wait 2 months before we can pay for electricity, so we can make sure all the other payments are made first.”

When times are very tight, they get a food box at the Children First/CIS Family Resource Center food pantry. “Alejendra only comes in when she really needs some extra help,” says Norma Brown from Children First/CIS .  She is also fortunate to be able to get assistance from her father-in-law to help meet monthly payments. Family support is a common safety net, but for the working poor, the need is usually greater than the supply and sources can be tapped out easily.

When asked about the stress this places on her family, Alejendra nods her head and says, “It’s not just about the pay, but it is also about the savings.” With no money left over at the end of the month, the looming threat of car & home repairs, added medical expenses or any of unexpected emergency is a cause for anxiety.

Long-term exposure to high levels of stress takes a toll on many parents and children living in poverty. Research indicates that low-income families are more likely to experience toxic stress levels that brain research show impacts the physical development of a child’s brain and hinders normal cognitive and emotional development. Chronic stress that is associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect the ability to learn, by negatively impacting concentration and memory; both necessary skills for school success.  In addition, stress also leads to behavioral problems which may include impulsiveness, difficulty getting along with peers, aggression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder.

One solution to help alleviate poverty and reduce family stress is for workers to earn a living wage.

*A “living wage” is the minimum amount that a worker must earn to afford his or her basic necessities, without public or private assistance. In short, a living wage is the real, just, minimum wage. The living wage for a single individual living in Western North Carolina for 2015 is $12.50/hour without employer provided health insurance, or $11.00/hour with health insurance provided by the employer. This amounts to $26,000/year without benefits, or $22,880/year with benefits, assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks a year. (source: Just Economics)

Out of nearly 400 different occupations in Buncombe County, 15%  pay below $11.85/hour. Although the number of low-wage occupations is relatively low, the number of workers occupying these jobs is high. According to Employment Security Commission data released in 2009, 35,820 workers are employed in these low-wage occupations, representing nearly one third (31%) of the Buncombe County workforce.

Of Buncombe County low-wage workers, one third, 34%, are employed in food preparation and serving related occupations. 22% are retail sales workers. 10% work transportation and material moving occupations. 9% are building cleaning workers, and 9% hold office and administrative occupations. These jobs pay between $8 and $10/hour, and typically don’t offer benefits of any kind.

As a community we need to demand more from both our political and corporate leaders. National efforts are underway campaigning to raise the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage would help 28 million American workers make ends meet, including 7 million women, and more than 21 million children have a parent who would get a raise. An increase in the minimum wage would literally give a raise to millions of children – equipping their families with more money to meet basic needs. We need to demand action and restore the promise that work is a pathway out of poverty.

When asked what she would do if she made the Living Wage, and thus would have about $800 more a month, Alejendra broke into a big smile and laughed. “We would not have to constantly be limiting ourselves. We would be able to help our family—brothers, sisters and parents. We could provide more for our daughter so she could join her friends.”

“We just need a little more to live a lot better.”


This story is part of a series collected by The Success Equation. Under the umbrella of Children First/CIS, the Success Equation is an initiative that unites community to reduce and prevent the root causes of poverty so all children can thrive. Get involved! Learn about action steps, volunteer opportunities, and help share these messages by going to To find more, go to