This story was supposed to be about eateries and the new minimum wage. I eat out now and then. I like good food. While not a foodie per se, I know what equates good food and stellar service. When they line up, I am not opposed to paying the going rate. But when I think about what those occasional tabs look like and surviving off minimum wage, it takes me back to the times when eating out was not an option.  It is still not an option for the thousands living in Oakland with no food security. I am talking about people who have to skip meals, eat less than well and/or go hungry for one or more days on a consistent basis.

Many of the households that lack food security are houses with children. In many of the houses, one or both parents work, and even with school meals and free summer lunch programs, their children are not afforded a healthy diet fit for growing minds and bodies. Hunger is a problem in America. There are American children, some living in Oakland, that went to school hungry this morning and will go to bed hungry tonight. The number of working poor is growing faster than the creation of well-paying jobs in American cities. So rather than a conversation about how restaurants will fare having to pay a minimum wage of $12.25, I am more interested in a conversation about whether the new minimum wage is a living wage.

If one makes $12.25, they earn a whopping $1,980 a month before taxes if they work 40 hours a week. That’s moving in the direction of a living wage, but what type of lifestyle will it support?

If one spends a third of their income on rent, (most places want you to earn three times what the rent is), you will have to find a place to live that cost less than $700. Oakland is one of the most volatile rental markets in California. In all likelihood you will have to break the one-third rule to find a place with four actual walls and a ceiling. So let’s say rent is a minimum of $700 for a room with kitchen privileges and a shared bath.  After securing this miracle living space, one would have $1,327 before taxes left to negotiate a month.

Let’s assume frugal living and no major expenses, no student loans, thrift store shopping and no new car note – you will still need to wash the thrift store finds and groom yourself, and you will probably want lights and gas and may have to pay for water. There are other necessities: mandatory auto insurance, gas, maintenance of your not-new car, or a Clipper Card, maybe life insurance, no health insurance will incur a penalty. Do you have a cell phone, internet, or pay to view television? It’s hard to imagine functioning without at least one of them. Let’s say your budget resembles the one below:

Rent a room: $700

Food: $465 ($5.00 a meal three meals a day for 31)

Cell Phone: $40

Cable/Internet (splitting the bill): $50

Electricity (splitting the bill): $40

Water: $35

Transportation: $151.20 (The monthly cost of public transit.)

Sundries/Toiletries: $120 ($30 a week for laundry, toiletries, cleaning supplies, non-food essentials – saran wrap, napkins, mouse traps, a bottle of wine, ink for your printer, batteries, etc.)

Insurance: $100 (Let’s say it’s a miracle and $100 a month covers mandatory auto and health insurance or renters insurance if you choose to find somewhere for less than $700 a month to live.)

Savings and/or surprises: $50

Credit cards: $60 (or magazines, cleaners, newspaper subscriptions, barber shop, etc.)

Total: $1,811.20

As you can see, there is not a lot of room for living it up on the town from earning $12.25 an hour, even for a single person working a full 40-hour week. In reality, 35 hours often equates to full time. So theoretically $12.25 would not quite support the lifestyle above, especially if one must pay taxes. A single person working full time and earning the minimum wage with no dependents will have to pay taxes. With dependents, even with a tax break, your strained dollars will have to stretch even further, and with even one more mouth to feed, a safety net becomes essential to survival.

So is $12.25 a living wage? No. It’s better than the old minimum, but it’s not enough. $15 an hour is perhaps the bottom wage one can negotiate a modest living in Oakland as a single person with no major debt or dependents. So here’s to the hike. It’s better, but not close enough to best for me to consider whether the delicious, overpriced burgers at Lukas Tap Room are better than the equal pricey and delicious burgers at Tenth & Wood, when more people than I feel comfortable thinking about are not able to afford McDonald’s.


Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.

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7 Responses

  1. Hobart Johnson

    $15 an hour is not sufficient for most people, even singles living as simply and economically as possible. In the Bay Area, with its exorbitant living costs, $20 is more like it.

    Keep in mind that poverty level income for a household is about $45K. $20 per hour just misses getting you there.

    Practically speaking for a household of four, with a couple of kids, $60 to $80K per annum is about minimal. That’s two $20 an hour jobs.

    • Ayodele Nzinga, MFA, PhD


      You are right — $15.00 an hour allows for no quality of life. There is a reason people work and I suspect we want more than to just barely pay the bills. You get no argument from me.

      Thanks for reading,
      Dr. Nzinga

    • Athena Horowitz

      Exactly right. I make just a little below oakland’s min wage and rent a room for $700. Without scholarships while in school, I’d definitely be unable to pay rent, or pay for gas, or eat, or transit. Transit to school is $200/mo. I’m really lucky for the scholarships, but in graduating in May, I won’t be able to stay in oakland with my pay. (Also, I’m not working at a restaurant or anything. I’m an admin.)

  2. Barry

    This is a really good article. The fight for minimum wage increases is important, but so is the reality check about how far behind we’ve fallen. I look at this budget, the cost estimates, and I think, “that’s not enough…I couldn’t make it on that.” I’ve been poor in the past and the stress boxes you in. It’s something that “comfortable” people can’t understand.

  3. Amelia

    Even if you cut out a car/transportation costs and ride a bicycle in this amazingly flat city of ours, you gotta bet your ass you’ll need insurance with the poor state of our roads and limited bicycle lanes and poor bike safety!

  4. juliette

    Good and to the point! Perhaps breaking it down this way will help people understand better. I am still amazed at how many people who are struggling do not support a living wage! Actually, I’m amazed at anyone who doesn’t support better lives for other people – what is that about? I digress – just wanted to say I appreciate this truth of this. Thank you.

  5. Joseph

    I know it sounds great to raise everyone’s wage and make the minimum wage $15 or higher, but the problem is that unfortunately business in Oakland are either planning to leave the city or are laying off employees or cutting back on hours , while also raising prices. A higher wage doesn’t benefit workers if it means more unskilled workers will be unemployed or their wage is absorbed by higher costs across the board.

    There are already many articles that have come out mentioning the negative effects of the minimum wage hike.

    Los Angeles is planning a $15 minimum wage in the coming years too and many businesses are wondering if they will stay in business . The profit margins on restaurants especially are quite low. It’s not all profit.
    If you take a look at restaurants for sale you will see that their profit margins are about 15%..if they get hit with a huge increase in the cost of labor..well then they could be operating at a loss or a return that doesn’t make any sense. Who is going to deal with the stress and long hours of running a business for those types of returns?
    I think a big issue in this debate is that the people rallying for a higher minimum wage don’t understand the costs and implications to small business. Most small businesses in all cities really aren’t making a huge amount of money at the end of the day.
    In Oakland’s Chinatown businesses are closing down because of this new law.

    “The new minimum wage forced owner of the Legendary Palace restaurant to close its doors on Feb. 26. Officials said four restaurants and six grocery stores have closed since January.”

    I think there definitely needs to be more of a focus on education, but many people currently have educational opportunities and don’t take them. Many people make poor decisions and have multiple children they can’t afford to take care of either.
    Those are lifestyle choices. Poor decisions oftentimes lead one to be poor. If someone strives for more money, they will need to do what it takes to make more money. Get a degree or credential, learn to sell, start a small business ,etc. Working a minimum wage job and then expecting to thrive in a high cost area is not realistic.
    Also you mentioned $700 for housing. I know of many cities in the country where you could BUY a house for $700/mo mortgage or less.
    I know of ways that one could live mortgage free by buying a property with a low down payment FHA loan and then renting out the other units. Buying a 4 unit building for 3% sounds like a pretty good deal right? There are cities where you can buy one for $100,000 or less 3% of that is $3,000. Probably difficult to do these days in Oakland, but there are other places where this can be done. At the same time this would allow people do build equity for their future. What is keeping them in Oakland ? A minimum wage job that they hate? You can find that any town in this nation.

    There are solutions to problems, but people oftentimes don’t want to hear them. They will come up with a big list of excuses of why they can’t improve their situation. “I don’t want to own property” , “I don’t have time for school”, etc. This is really unfortunate. People that succeed in life don’t have this mentality.


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