Story by Ashley Norman / Contributing Writer
Emily Smith was 14 years old when she started her first job in Montgomery, Alabama. She restocked shelves at her hometown’s local grocery store. It was 1999, and she was making just over $5 an hour.
Fast forward 22 years, and Emily is now working full time as a waitress at a Waffle House in the Nashville area. On average, she makes $9.25 an hour — $2 an hour more than the federal minimum wage. Her name has been changed at her request.
Emily is paid about $4 more than she was 22 years ago. She now has two daughters, ages 10 and 13, and a 17-year-old son. Emily and her children live with her mother in a two-bedroom house in Smyrna.
A living wage for a single adult in 2021 is $15.41 an hour — a third of what a family of four needs to survive, according to data from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator. At just over $9 an hour, Emily is barely scraping by.
The federal minimum wage has been stagnant for over a decade, frozen in time while the cost of living continues to rise. The minimum wage would have needed to reach $10.15 in 2018 to have kept pace with inflation since 1968, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit that analyzes how economic trends and policies affect the United States’ workforce.
Emily, 35, had dreams of becoming the fourth person in her family to earn a college degree. She wanted to become a teacher, so she spent three afternoons a week during her junior year of high school tutoring at a local YMCA. She had also been promoted to cashier at the grocery store she had worked at since she was 14 years old.
“I remember a lot of times in school that I wanted to drop out,” Emily said while sitting on a bench against the yellow backlight of the iconic Waffle House roof. “Barely any of my family went to college, and some even dropped out of high school. I saw what not having an education did to my family.
“I wanted to teach because I wanted to help kids stay in school,” she continued. “I wanted to work in the rougher parts of a city and be a mentor to kids growing up in the kind of situation I grew up in.”
In the summer before her senior year, she became pregnant with her first child. It was unexpected, so she was forced to put her college plans on hold and focus on finishing high school.
“I still haven’t gone to college,” Emily said. “I had my two other kids not long after [the first], so the timing was never right. How can I even pay for school? I have three kids to feed, my mom to take care of and bills to pay.
“I can barely breathe now,” she continued. “People try to blame my money trouble on not having a degree, but I couldn’t have left my kids to fend for themselves while student loans kept piling up. It just feels like people try to find excuses to keep from paying people more money. They try to make me feel like not being educated justifies being poor.”
Emily and her three children were evicted from their home in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2013. She was working two jobs and rarely missed a shift, but even with long hours at minimum wage, there was never enough to pay the bills on time.
Her mother helped as best she could to pay a portion of the bills, but a back injury prevented her from helping Emily make every payment. Her mother’s medical bills took priority, so Emily tried to make ends meet on her own. Without her mother’s financial assistance, bills kept falling through the cracks.
Emily and her three children moved in with her mother, who also lived in Montgomery, after the eviction. They ultimately decided to move out of state for, what Emily described as, “a fresh start.”
“I’ve never told my kids why we needed to move in with my mom. I’m still embarrassed and don’t want them to worry,” Emily said. “My son figured it out though, and that was a hard conversation to have with him, but my two girls think it was because my mom was hurt — which is kind of true. I’ll tell them when they’re old enough to get it.
“I just couldn’t keep up with the bills. I was always close to eviction — that whole ‘living paycheck to paycheck’ thing — but my mom was my lifeline and always helped so we could make it one more month,” she continued. “I was always past due, but my mom’s back was getting worse, so she had to stop helping me pay for the house and I had to help pay her medical bills.”
Emily moved to Nashville with her mother and three children in 2014. She was working two jobs while trying to juggle motherhood. It soon became too difficult, so she kept her job at Waffle House while her then 56-year-old mother began working at a grocery store — also making minimum wage. Her mother had not worked since 2011 because of her back injury. Her mother is still working there today and makes the same minimum wage pay as when she started.
“It isn’t fair that my mom felt forced to work because she saw that I couldn’t keep up with things,” Emily said. “She had already used savings to move us here. I was missing out on my kids’ lives because by the time I got off my first job, they were out of school and I had to go straight to my other job.
“My mom told me that my kids were still young, and she didn’t want me to miss out on their lives anymore,” she continued. “I tried to talk her out of it, but she got a job so I could quit my second one. She is so tired and works so hard, but she comes home with a paycheck of just a few hundred bucks. The American system kills.”
When the coronavirus pandemic reached its peak last summer, Emily asked her mother to quit her job at the grocery store. Emily found a second job again until it was safe enough for her mother to return to work.
Her mother went back to work this January and Emily quit the temporary second job. One of Emily’s biggest fears is what may happen in a medical emergency. She saw a glimpse of what could happen when her mother injured her back in 2011, and then what could have happened if one of them had gotten COVID-19. Between her and her mother’s pay, there is no room left for any unexpected bills.
“Once COVID-19 happened, money wasn’t what worried me as much,” Emily said. “It did make me wonder how on earth people are expected to have emergency funds when we barely make enough to even survive, but COVID really put things in perspective. I was so worried about money before, but when the entire world is getting sick, you realize what’s really important.
“I wasn’t going to let my mom get sick, or even die like so many have from the coronavirus,” she continued. “Losing her paycheck was better than losing her. I could work a second job again until it was safer. I had done it before. I just wanted her safe at home with my kids.”
Emily had considered finding a different, safer job at the beginning of the pandemic. She was concerned that working in a restaurant, where people remove their masks and she has direct contact with dirty plates and utensils, could put her and her family at a greater health risk.
“Business got real slow in the beginning,” Emily said. “That scared me because I thought maybe (Waffle House) would close and I’d be completely out of a job.
“But it really did feel uncomfortable at first — standing so close to people and not knowing who was sick and who wasn’t,” she continued. “I figured out how to stay safe while serving, but dealing with people’s dirty plates of chewed-up burgers and fries and cleaning their dirty tables still makes me nervous.”
Putting her children through college is another one of her worries, especially now that her son will soon graduate from high school.
“It keeps me up at night,” Emily said. “I want all my kids to go to college, but I have no clue how I can make it happen. I don’t want their potential taken away because I can’t afford to put them through school. There is help now though, like scholarships and financial aid, so I have hope.”
As discussions of raising the federal minimum wage continue, Emily and her mother will continue to work as much as possible to provide for their family. The recent stimulus payments have helped them in the short-term, but she hopes the government will do more to help in the long term.
“I don’t know how much longer [the government] thinks $7.25 an hour will work, like it’s even working now,” Emily said. “I hear all these arguments why minimum wage shouldn’t be $15 an hour, but are they even willing to hear why it would work?
“People look down on us who work at lower wages, like we don’t work hard enough or aren’t worth making enough money to live,” she continued. “Politicians should live a year at minimum wage, and I bet they’d raise it then.”
To contact Lifestyles Editor Ashley Barrientos, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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