Food and living expenses have new meaning for three Eastern Iowa state senators who recently accepted a national challenge to Live the Wage for one week. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids, Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City and Tom Courtney of Burlington agreed to try and live with only $77 of spending money.
The national challenge is the product of a coalition of advocates who hope to draw attention to the issue of the federal minimum wage.
A person working 40 hours per week at minimum wage has gross earnings of $290 per week. The $77 is what the advocates estimate remains after taxes ($35.06) and housing expenses ($176.48) are deducted.
Facebook posts have documented the challenge for the trio, and their commentary has been what one might expect from three men experiencing a new food and expense budget. For instance, after providing a grocery store shopping list, Hogg wrote, “Now I have $33.48 left for the rest of the week for transportation and food. I think I can make it if I have time to do my own cooking and if nothing else goes wrong.”
Bolkcom wrote, “I am making a big pot of pinto beans for tacos. I will be lunching on PBJ sandwiches all week. Yogurt, bagel and banana for breakfast. Hard to afford a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Much more interesting have been the comments to their social media posts.
More than one commenter, for instance, derided Bolkcom for spending a portion of his weekly allotment on beer. Several others questioned his choice of grocery store. Another advocated for skipping expensive meats, not realizing that Bolkcom is a vegetarian.
On Hogg’s post a commenter noted he had not purchased fresh fruits or vegetables. Another chided his assertion that he’d be OK barring unexpected expenses with “something always goes wrong.”
“Don’t get sick or break a tooth. Don’t run over a nail or drive through floodwaters.”
You get the idea. Choices came under scrutiny. Decisions were questioned.
Suddenly, the lawmakers had a heck of a lot more on their plates than reduced-price spaghetti sauce.
The challenge is doing what it was designed to do — bring awareness to the limited choices available to people who earn minimum wage. But the comments paint a much broader picture of the added scrutiny and mental burden poverty includes.
Last year, a team of international researchers published scientific findings on the negative impact poverty can have on cognitive function. That is, people who are poor spend so much of their mental energy on immediate problems related to their financial situation that they have little capacity left for other important tasks like education, time management or family.
The more complex and difficult the decisions, the worse those who are poor fare in finding resolution that does not worsen an already stressful situation.
“The human cognitive system is limited,” the researchers found. “When you don’t have enough resources — money, time and other ways to deal with problems — there’s a trade-off in thinking.
“What we are arguing is that these poverty-related concerns consume mental resources and affect problem-solving skills … and, as a result, the poor have fewer mental resources for other problems.”
The burden is so stark, the researchers warn, that it is no different from losing an entire night of sleep or suffering an IQ drop of 13 points, which is the difference between cognitive functions of a typical adult versus a chronic alcoholic.
And when all of a person’s energy is zapped, he or she is going to make mistakes — very likely mistakes that will further exacerbate existing financial difficulties. For instance, not accessing preventive health care, missing or being late to appointments like job interviews, skipping needed medications or not actively participating in a child’s education.
In this sense, poverty can impact a family for generations.
While bursts of stress can often prompt temporarily improved mental performance, the chronic strains of poverty drain resources when they are often most required.
Anyone who has had to navigate the winding path of public assistance applications understands how taxing locating help can be.
When thoughts are focused on feeding children or finding work, comprehending city bus schedules becomes much more difficult. And so many of the systems society has in place to help lift people out of poverty were developed by people not suffering a cognitive tax.
The dilemma is manifested repeatedly within the comments to the Live the Wage challenge postings.
“Cost could really be reduced by growing your own food.”
“Where you fill your gas tank will impact your budget significantly.”
“You are missing out on that other treasured experience of qualifying for and using food stamps.”
“Cooking from scratch is crucial.”
“I would highly recommend the 16-pack of Ramen noodles.”
“What I don’t have is time. I get 1.5 hours with my kids every evening. That includes making dinner, doing homework and getting to bed.”
“Eat that food for months on end because you have no other choice.”
And, perhaps most important of all: “You always know you can go back to your regular life.”
There will always be some who argue that making different choices or “trying harder” will lead to a different outcome. And, at the most basic level, such armchair pundits are correct.
If, for instance, those earning lower wages would supplement their food budget with a vegetable garden, they could improve their condition. But such statements belie reality.
Where does someone living in multifamily housing plant a garden? Are community garden plots located along public transportation routes? How much time and money will it take to organize, plant and cultivate?
The devil is always in the details, and poverty makes the ability to comprehend and respond to the challenges of those details more difficult.
When so much of the day is controlled by any one issue — finances, for instance — there’s very little time left to worry about other things that are also important and right in front of you. You start doing things and making choices you regret. You don’t anticipate shorter- or longer-term responses and outcomes to the choices being made today.
Right now, an unemployed parent may think, I’ve got to concentrate on putting food on the table. When an assistance program promises a certain level of payment in exchange for job training, it seems like a lifeline. It is only after the program begins that the parent realizes the added expense of transportation to the training site is diminishing the payment earmarked for groceries, and the provided payment is actually less per hour than what could have been earned at a minimum wage job.
For years society has been asking why some individuals seem lost in poverty and can’t seem to rise above. I believe the answer lies within our nation’s swing toward “earning” a helping hand.
Policy has been built for the last 20 years on making access to assistance onerous. We want only the most determined or the most needy to jump through the required hoops, a response to earlier outrage over programs that required too little investment of those served.
If we want to solve the issue of multigenerational poverty, we must respond to the cognitive tax burden our state and national policies are placing on those attempting to get ahead. It is time for the pendulum of public sentiment to sway back toward middle ground.
The real challenge we need to issue to lawmakers isn’t a short-term drive in the low-income lane, but a voluntary agreement for sleep deprivation. Once they’re feeling the simulated strains of cognitive tax, we should ask them to access and evaluate the assistance programs they’ve created.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Sept. 14, 2014.