No one can plan for the future on $7.25

By Hannah Presnell, Down Home Jackson member.

The current minimum wage of $7.25 is no longer a living wage– if it ever was.

This past December, everyone was doing a 10-year challenge on social media where they compared pictures of themselves from 2009 to 2019. Some of my friends’ changes were amazing.

But the 10-year challenge meme that really spoke to me compared wages: In 2009 the minimum wage was set at $7.25, over 10 years later that has not changed even while the cost of living most certainly has.

$7.25. That hardly made ends meet even back then. It doesn’t work for me meeting my basic needs right now as a student at Western Carolina University. And ten years from now, when I hope to have my degree and be building my life and career, I will look back and know that struggling day to day to make ends meet did nothing to get me to the future I need. 

In rural areas like where I am from, good-paying industrial and manufacturing jobs have left and been replaced by service sector jobs. There are hardly any good-paying jobs here: In 2016 Jackson County lost 40% (nearly half!) of its manufacturing jobs when just one company shut down. But service sector jobs continue to grow; you cannot look anywhere without spotting a service place– and while these jobs can help lower the unemployment rate, that is all they do. They offer little to no benefits to the lives of working individuals or their families. 

These jobs that pay low wages and offering no benefits affect individuals drastically– I know because I work one. These jobs impacts our stability, health, and ability to plan for our futures. As a college student, my low wages, my ever-changing work schedule, and having no benefits doesn’t help me get to where I am going. 

In fact, the wages at my job stand in my way.

I attend Western Carolina University in the beautiful mountains of Jackson County, North Carolina. I am currently employed through Aramark to work at Freshens in the school cafeteria. I consider myself fortunate: I currently am getting paid $9 an hour and, up until three days ago, was working 31.5 hour weeks. However, this past Monday my work decided to cut all of their workers’ hours. That included mine: They took 8.5 hours away from me with no notice.  Now I have to scramble to figure things out.

Even when I had 31.5 hour weeks I did not make enough to be able to afford all my basic necessities such as rent, health insurance, bills, and food. Not only was I having to work such high hours for a student just to make enough, but I was also having to scramble to get my classwork done and turned in on time.  Fewer hours gives me more time for school, sure— but its a hit on my finances. Low wages and low hours don’t keep me fed, housed, and safe. It doesn’t help me be the best student I can be.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy… but doing it this way is so hard. 

I am a graphic design student and my professors say that we need to spend at least 15 hours outside of class to be able to pass their class. But for students like me who have to work this is impossible. I am having to work long hours for a low wage just to afford to go to school and I am in constant fear that I will end up failing my classes because I am not able to spend the required time outside of class for class. 

$15 minimum for me, would mean that I could work fewer hours and also have the time I need to get the degree I know I need.

North Carolina workers need $15 an hour to make ends meet. If the cost of living, along with everything else can increase, then so can the minimum wage. If I am struggling as a young student just to pursue my college dreams, I cannot imagine what it is like for older folks who need medicine or people raising families. We all deserve so much better.

I would like to see myself along with so many others not have to decide whether we are going to pay rent or put food on the table, but instead, be able to do both… as well as go to school to become who we want to be.