Lenten Series: Minimum wage workers are giving up so much already

Sung Yeon Choi-Morrow |

Last week, we began the Lenten season with Ash Wednesday, a question many Christians pondered is “what should I give up?”  My husband and I listed the things we could think to give up. The process usually starts something like, “Okay, let’s give up chocolate or meat.” And then we decide food isn’t really compelling and continue down a list of creative things we can give up.

The other day, I remembered that President Obama said recently, “Nobody who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.” I was reminded of how so many people in the United States that so many of our friends and neighbors work full-time and still live in poverty, these workers are already giving up so much.

Workers are giving up spending time with their families and time to rest. When workers live in poverty and work a 40-hours week, they often have to work more hours at multiple jobs. With the current federal minimum wage, someone working 40 hours a week without missing a single week in a year earns $15,080 annually, and that is not enough income on which to raise a family. In fact, in the state of Illinois, one has to work at least 82 hours a week at a minimum wage job just to afford a two-bed room unit at Fair Market Rent.

Workers are giving up health and well-being. All but one state in the U.S. mandates Paid Sick Leave for all workers. This means that workers have to go to work sick or risk not making rent, or choosing between rent, medicine and food.

Workers are giving up one necessity for another. Many who make minimum wage constantly make difficult choices. Some choose between whether to fix the car or to buy prescription medicine. Some choose between buying their children new gym shoes or clothes. Some make more dire choices such as choosing between paying utility bills or putting food on the table.

During this lent season, while we are thinking about, or have started the practice of giving up something, I encourage you to add something.  I encourage you to think about people who always have to give up something because we live in a society where people working full-time still live in poverty. I encourage you to do one thing each week that helps our country become a place for all to live well. Tell your U.S. Senators and Representatives, and to tell them you support the increase of minimum wage. Support or donation to a local worker center near you, or donate to Interfaith Worker Justice!

This year, each Friday during Lent, IWJ's Organizing Director, Sung Yeon Choi-Morrow, will share reflections based on her pastoral education and experiences in the field helping to move the work for worker justice and a fair economy.