NCAPA members joined the #LiveTheWage challenge July 24-30 to raise awareness about the growing inequality in the U.S. July 24 marked five years since the last federal minimum wage increase. Below is a blog by the Japanese American Citizens League executive director about her experiences during the challenge.
DEJA VU: By Priscilla Ouchida
As I sat down to eat my third lunch of rice, fried eggs, and carrots in as many days, it was déjà vu all over again. The meal took me back to the years I was a minimum wage worker. I was young, healthy, single, and did not have children. Yet, I could not survive on 40 hours of minimum wage work. I worked three jobs to support myself – a day job, an evening job and a weekend job. Most of my money went to rent and utilities. My life today is a lot better than those days.
Could I do it today? I came into the Live The Wage challenge with a lot of plusses. I have health insurance. I can cook and I have cooking equipment. I have a work wardrobe, and a large stash of soy sauce and sugar packets that I accumulated from fast food establishments (some old habits die hard). I didn’t have those things 40 years ago. And because of a health condition, I could only stay on my “minimum wage” diet for three days.
I did what I did in my youth. I took my $77 and put it into piles. $21 for Metro transportation to and from work. $25 for one week of food. $31 for other expenses. This was my hard rule. No more than $25 for food – I learned from experience that there is always an unexpected expense. I put the money in worn envelopes.
A “minimum wage” diet is not a healthy diet. Fruits and vegetables are a luxury. If I didn’t get fruits and vegetables from someone who grew it in their garden, I didn’t eat it. A lot of people will ask, “why don’t ‘poor’ people just eat a healthier diet?” Healthier is expensive. What did I buy on my minimum wage? Eighteen eggs for $2.79; a small bag of rice for $4.49, wieners for $3.99, frozen peas for $1.50, five cups of yogurt for $3.75, raw carrots for $1.99 and a watermelon for $4.99. Years ago, I could buy a can of Spam, but that is now out of the range of my budget.
My breakfasts were a cup of yogurt with a bowl of watermelon. My lunches were leftover rice, 2 fried eggs, and raw carrots. My dinners were wieners, rice and frozen peas or raw carrots. It was a monotonous routine. One that I survived on for over two years. I varied my wieners – sometimes I ate them sliced and cooked with soy sauce and sugar for a teriyaki effect. Other times I ate it grilled dipped in soy sauce. (Love those packets of soy sauce.) I remember watching people with envy as they ate something other than rice, eggs or wieners.
Most people today don’t think much about pennies, but like most minimum wage workers, I thought about pennies. Each and every one. A penny could make the difference between being able to buy a bar of soap or a bottle of shampoo or not being able to buy a basic necessity. A penny can be the difference between getting well with medications or staying sick. If your co-pay is $5.00, $4.99 does no good. And when you need feminine napkins, you need them!
Today, 12.6% of Asian Americans live below the poverty line and many educated millennials have to live like I did. They did all the right things but were born in a time that they came into the job market just as the economy crashed. It is even harder on families. This is not a “poor” person problem. It is a problem of inadequate wages for the working class.
-Priscilla Ouchida, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL)