Working and Poor: Candidates respond to calls to raise the minimum wage, but how much is enough?

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Protesters march through Center City demanding a $15 minimum wage.

Protesters march through Center City demanding a $15 minimum wage. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Nationwide, about 43 million people live below the federal poverty line. In Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, 800,000 people are struggling to make ends meet. In the weeks before November’s general election, we’ll examine how the policies put forth by our presidential candidates would affect them.

Some people go out for dinner and a movie.

But for Heather Huff and her fiancé, Friday nights are for paying the bills.

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They sit down at the dining room table they share in their boarding house in West Philadelphia and they wait until after Huff’s fiancé’s 5-year-old daughter is upstairs in bed.

“That way she’s not hearing the stress that comes from me and my partner,” Huff said.

Heather Huff welcomes Bella home from school. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Huff has worked exclusively in fast-food restaurants since she was 18 years old — McDonald’s, Burger King, Checkers and Jack in the Box. Now 33, she’s still making $8 an hour as a crew member at Arby’s – just 75 cents above the minimum wage.

Right now, Huff’s biggest worry is whether she can continue paying $161 a month in tuition to study to become a medical assistant — a job that could earn her closer to $15 an hour.

That kind of money, she said, could make a big difference in her family’s life.

“I wouldn’t have to be living in a rooming house,” she said. “I wouldn’t have to worry about sharing space with someone else. My daughter would be able to play as she wants. I’d be able to provide — not live on state government assistance. I’d be able to go and finish school. A lot of stress would be taken off my back.”

‘You can’t even buy a hot dog’

The number of workers in Pennsylvania who actually make $7.25 an hour is relatively small — roughly 150,000, according to a 2016 report from the state’s minimum wage advisory board.

But there are thousands more workers like Huff making a bit more who also struggle to pay their bills.

Huff said one thing that helps her cope with the stress of worrying about money is participating in protests with other workers demanding a higher minimum wage.

The “Fight for 15” movement — backed by the Service Employees International Union — has been organizing rallies and canvassing in Philadelphia and other cities throughout this election year.

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Protesters march for a living wage near City Hall in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

However, neither of the major party presidential candidates is willing to go that far.

Democrat Hillary Clinton wants to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour at the national level and supports local efforts to push it even higher. Republican Donald Trump has said it should be $10 an hour, but said “states should call the shots.”

“As an example, I live in New York,” he said in July during a press conference in Florida. “It’s very expensive in New York. You can’t even buy a hot dog for the money you’re talking about.”

Pennyslvania’s minimum wage has remained flat since 2009 when Congress raised it to $7.25. Since then, 29 states — including Delaware and New Jersey — have boosted their minimums above that level, but efforts to do the same in Pennsylvania remain deadlocked along party lines.

Bills introduced by Democrats to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 have failed to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature, which largely opposes an increase. There is no evidence that support from their party’s nominee has moved the needle.

According to the Keystone Research Center, a liberal think tank, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would help 1.2 million Pennsylvania workers, including more than 300,000 in Philadelphia and the nearby suburbs.

But critics argue it would actually put many of those workers out of a job because employers couldn’t afford to pay them.

“The jobs lost are the ones that are occupied by the very low-income individuals that we’re trying to help here,” said Alex Halper, director of government affairs with the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, which has lobbied against a higher minimum wage.

Halper pointed to a 2014 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which found that a $10.10 minimum wage would result in 500,000 fewer jobs nationwide, or about 0.3 percent of all employment.

How much is too much?

Economists have argued about the effect of raising the minimum wage for decades.

“You’ve got real cat fights and some really unpleasant ones,” said Dale Belman, an economics professor at Michigan State University.

Today, most economists are no longer cat-fighting about whether the country should raise the minimum wage, Belman said. Instead, they’re arguing about how much is too much.

Belman and his colleague Paul Wolfson of Dartmouth University reviewed about 200 studies and academic papers on the issue for their 2014 book, “What Does the Minimum Wage Do?” They concluded that “modest increases” in the minimum wage do not result in fewer jobs.

Belman said he thinks Trump’s idea to raise it to $10 an hour is modest enough to avoid major job losses, but doesn’t help low-income workers much.

“Basically, Trump is proposing to restore the minimum wage to a level that we had in the 1960s,” he said. “That’s still above the buying power of the more recent minimum wage, but given that when you increase the minimum wage, it tends to get stuck there, it’s not actually a very exciting amount.”

However, Belman does agree with Trump that states should be able to raise their minimums since dollars stretch differently from place to place.

Clinton’s proposal for a $12 an hour wage to be “significant,” Belman said, but reasonable, so long as it’s phased in — dollar by dollar — over several years.

He thinks it could go further to help workers in states like Pennsylvania, where lawmakers are deadlocked on the issue and where state law bars local governments like Philadelphia’s from setting their own minimum wages.

Michelle Riggs, who makes $10.45 an hour as a security guard at Temple University, said another $1.55 would be “a start.”

“Maybe I might could put $20 away,” said Riggs.

She lives in South Philadelphia with her daughter and granddaughter, who help care for Riggs’ 82-year-old mother who owns the house.

Riggs hasn’t been able to afford a vacation in seven years, but said she’s getting by.

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Michelle Riggs, a security guard at Temple University, holds her nephew, Omar, during a rally for raising the minimum wage on the Temple campus. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“By my age, I’m looking forward to retiring in a couple of years,” she said. “I just feel bad for the people that’s coming up because I don’t have 44 more years to work, but a lot of the young people, they got 47 more years to work.

“Making this kind of money, you don’t have enough to retire on. You’re gonna have to work the rest of your life.”

Riggs worries about her teenage granddaughter who, after a long search, just got her first job at Wawa making $10 an hour — just 45 cents less than her grandmother.

The business perspective

But how are businesses responding to the candidates’ proposals?

Riggs’ employer, Conshohocken-based firm AlliedUniversal, declined to comment for this story. But CEO Steve Jones told the Philadelphia Inquirer in August that the company is “adjusting” to higher minimum wages in New York and other cities.

“In New York, Washington, and San Francisco, you can make the argument $15 is on the low end,” he said.

Jones’ comments defy the prevailing notion that business owners are universally against raising the minimum wage.

While groups such as the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry remain opposed, a leaked survey of 1,000 executives across the country showed that 80 percent supported raising their states’ minimum wages.

In May, the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce announced it backs a $9.25 minimum wage.

However, it’s clear some are still hesitant.

“We would love to be able to do it because we’d like to see people have better lives, better opportunities,” said Gary Shepherd, who runs a small advertising agency in Philadelphia.

But “in order for us to do that,” he said, “we’d have to grow our business accordingly.”

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