February 20, 2014
Surfing a rental housing website for low-cost apartments in her district on the south side of Minneapolis, State Rep. Karen Clark didn’t find much to choose from. Not much that was very appealing, anyhow.
“It looks like a little box. It’s weird looking,” said Clark, checking the photo of a house for rent from her office in the state capitol. In her price range — $375 a month while she is living on the Working America Minimum Wage Challenge — she wouldn’t be renting the whole house. Just one room is available — in a shared house with three adult men.
“It would be very discouraging,” she says. To live in shared housing, she says, “I would have to go back to my early days out of school; that’s what I did when I got out of college. If I had children, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Clark and four other Minnesota legislators — Reps. Frank Hornstein (Minneapolis), John Lesch (St. Paul), Jason Metsa (Virginia) and Shannon Savick (Wells) — have accepted the Minimum Wage Challenge. To help educate their colleagues as the legislature debates raising the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour, they’re living this week as if they earned the current minimum of $7.25 an hour. That translates to $15,080 a year, or $1,256 a month. A standard housing budget is 30 percent of income, leaving Clark and her colleagues $375 to find a place to live.
At that price, there aren’t many options. “I can tell you that two years ago, in order to rent a two-bedroom apartment in my district, you had to have an income of $17.25 an hour,” says Clark. “It may have changed some, but it hasn’t gone down.”
Coping with adult roommates is only one of the challenges facing those with a minimal budget for shelter. “Some of the housing that’s available is not appropriate for children. It has a lot of lead paint. That’s very toxic for toddlers,” says Clark, who worked as a nurse practitioner before she was elected to the legislature.
In addition to raising wages, she says, Minnesota needs to invest more in affordable housing. “We have around 20,000 homeless people, and half of those are children. We have waiting lists for public housing. We know how to make housing affordable — you can use land trusts — but it costs money.”
Money is one thing Clark doesn’t have much of this week. Her food budget is just $35 a week. “I had a good breakfast,” she says. “One egg and toast, with a little extra olive oil. I think that was helpful.”
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“I’m not suffering,” she is quick to point out. But Clark also has noticed “being on the edge of hunger” more than a few times. How does she cope? “Drinking more water,” she says, with a chuckle. “If I’m hungry, I’ll have a big glass of water.”
“It’s both inspiring and challenging,” says Clark, to learn what life is like for those living on minimum wage. “It increases my resolve, and I look forward to passing that law” to give low-wage workers in Minnesota a raise to $9.50 an hour. “I do think more of us who are making that kind of decision should live on what we’re asking people to do. I think that would open some eyes.”