Thin Margins

Earning about $10 an hour, Tyrone Hudson said he needs to make about twice that much to live comfortably. He lives at his mother's home since he can't afford a place of his own and still adequately provide for his son. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Earning about $10 an hour, Tyrone Hudson said he needs to make about twice that much to live comfortably. He lives at his mother's home since he can't afford a place of his own and still adequately provide for his son. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

In August, as Tyrone Hudson gathered the money he planned to give to his 7-year-old son for school supplies, uniforms and private school tuition, he realized that his phone bill would have to go unpaid for the month. “My bills always have to compromise,” said Hudson, 29, a full-time clerk at a downtown law firm. “I’ve been trying to save up for a car, but there’s always a bill coming out of nowhere.”

The prices of everything from gasoline to white bread have risen, exponentially in some cases. But the salaries many Chicagoans earn have not grown at the same rate. Hudson is just one of thousands feeling financially squeezed by the increasing costs of city living and near-stagnant wages—in several occupations, especially those paying less than the citywide median. As a result, a widening gulf has appeared between what some people are being paid and how much they need.

Many, especially the elderly and families with two children, can barely cover the basics: food, housing, clothing and transportation.

“If you ask how they are making ends meet, we shouldn’t like the answers because there’s something basic being compromised,” said Diana Pearce, a director for the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington in Seattle, who created a “self-sufficiency” standard for Chicago in 2001. “You can’t budget your way if you only have half of what you need according to the standards.”

Using Pearce’s standards for a single-person household and a four-person household with two adults and two school-aged children, adjusted for inflation, The Chicago Reporter analyzed census data and found that 37 percent of single-person households and 46 percent of four-person households were not self-sufficient in 1999, the most recent year for which comprehensive data were available for earnings by household size in Chicago.

Furthermore, a Reporter analysis of 2004 wage estimates from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that wages for nearly half of those earning below the citywide median—about $40,720—have not risen as fast as inflation since 2000.

The gap between what Chicagoans get paid and what they need—referred to by many as a “living wage”—spans all races, professions and education levels. But Asian, black and Latino families in Chicago were much more likely to feel the pinch than white families. Individuals working in retail and service industries, even supervisors, did not earn a living wage as often as lawyers and teachers. And individuals without a high school diploma were below that mark much more often than college graduates.

To stay afloat, some make minor adjustments with bill payments, while others make life-changing decisions.

Marlene Mosby is already worried about the rising and fluctuating costs of her heating bill, months before the razor-sharp freeze of winter slices through Chicago. In the past, she has gone without paying telephone and electric bills to ensure that her apartment stayed warm. “I don’t know what’s going to happen trying to live in the city,” said Mosby, 72, a retired state worker. “Some of my friends said they were leaving Chicago because it was just too expensive.”

Ociel Espinoza, 30, admits that he’d love to spend more time with his wife and 2-year-old son, but he works two jobs—averaging 70 to 80 hours per week. “We don’t spend too much time as a family together, and it’s a big problem. Sometimes the baby needs his father,” he said.

Mike, a 29-year-old husband and father who did not want his real name used for fear that he might lose his construction job, said it’s hard to meet his family’s basic costs on his salary. “I can’t imagine how it is if you’re a single parent with kids,” he said. “People are still trying to live on what they made eight years ago, and it just doesn’t work.”

To make sure her apartment stays warm, Marlene Mosby, a retired state worker living on her pension, has used her credit card to pay the heating bill or skipped payments on other bills. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Hudson, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Chicago State University, can do the math on how far his $23,500-a-year salary stretches.

He said he lives at his mother’s home in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side since he cannot afford his own place and still take care of his son, Ean, who lives with his mother in south suburban Country Club Hills. Hudson has contributed regularly to household bills since his father’s death in April. A former postal worker for about 36 years, Hudson’s father had paid the family’s bills. Hudson’s mother is a homemaker, currently drawing on her husband’s life insurance and pension.

Hudson gives his mother around $250 per month to cover utilities and bills. He sends around $300 per month to Ean, mostly for school uniforms and tuition—about $225 per month. After another $80 a month on CTA passes and other expenses that periodically surface, like $75 for Ean’s books, Hudson says he has barely anything left. “I don’t even eat lunch at work, because I really can’t afford it,” said Hudson, whose $10-an-hour salary is far less than what experts say he needs. “The only time I’ll eat lunch is on a payday because I know after that it’s all for the bills.”

This year, a four-person household needs about $15 an hour—with one adult working 40 hours a week, and the other working 20 hours a week—to cover its basic needs, said Ron Baiman, a researcher for the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In 2002, researchers with the university’s Center for Urban Economic Development generated a living wage benchmark based on the consumer price index and Pearce’s estimated expenses. For that same family of four, Pearce calculated that basic monthly expenses in 2001 would equal $3,543. They included $891 for a two-bedroom home or apartment, $888 for child care, $675 for taxes, $544 for food, $298 for healthcare costs, $150 for transportation and $277 for miscellaneous expenses. She deducted $180 for tax credits.

In August of this year, those expenses would total $3,891, adjusted for inflation using figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the Chicago metropolitan area. And this isn’t living “high on the hog,” Pearce said. “It’s not even enough money for saving.”

“Miscellaneous costs cover clothing, diapers, school supplies, soap. It doesn’t allow for savings, education or entertainment. Just the basics,” said Pearce, who has continued to develop self-sufficiency standards for cities nationwide.

Census 2000 data show that there were more than 63,000 households with two adults and two children in Chicago. In 1999, nearly 46 percent of them earned less than the $40,158 they would need by Pearce’s self-sufficiency standard adjusted for inflation.

About 20 percent of whites in those four-person households earned below the self-sufficiency mark, compared with more than 50 percent of Asians, blacks and Latinos.

And, among those four-person households, individuals working as cashiers or cooks were below the self-sufficiency mark more than 70 percent of the time. Those were also individuals who’ve seen their wages rise at a slower rate than inflation since 2000, according to federal wage estimates for the Chicago area.

Hudson said he likes his job, and he’s thankful that it allows him to help take care of his mother and his son. “But this pay isn’t really cutting it. I feel like I’m struggling,” he said. “I feel like I would need at least $50,000 to $60,000 [a year] to be comfortable.”

With the country slowly staggering out of an economic recession, there is a short supply of higher-paying jobs, even for college graduates. “You can educate people all you want,” said Baiman, “but if the jobs aren’t out there, it doesn’t matter.”

Baiman said many working people in Chicago are supporting their families on low wages. “These would be typically low-wage jobs: retail work, low-end service jobs, home healthcare workers and agricultural workers,” he said.

But, in order to do it, they have to work a lot of hours.

In 1999, among Chicago’s four-person households earning above the self-sufficiency mark, the adults averaged 73 hours of work a week. Among those households below the mark, the adults averaged about 49 hours of work a week.

Espinoza helps support his family by working six days a week at two relatively low-paying jobs. His days are spent making pizzas and other Italian fare at a downtown restaurant from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. He then hightails it to another downtown restaurant where he works as a busboy late into the evening—until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights—before he finally heads home to his three-bedroom apartment on the Southwest Side.

Espinoza’s job as a cook pays him around $8.50 an hour, while his second job is dependent on tips. His wife also holds a part-time job as a telemarketer. He doesn’t see the hours as a struggle. “In the U.S., people don’t work as much as you would in Mexico,” said Espinoza, a Mexican immigrant who came to Chicago in 1993. “Where I’m from, people work 11, 12 hours a day. I think everybody is looking for something better, and it’s hard sometimes.”

The family doesn’t really have problems paying their rent and utility bills, but they are slowly saving money, Espinoza said. To cut costs, he and his wife live modestly—he rides the bus and train during the week instead of driving, and, occasionally, he walks to work. They shop only when they need something.

Espinoza would like to go to culinary school and to continue learning English. “I like my job, but I maybe can learn something better. And, if you learn how to speak English better, you can ask for more money or take a better job,” he added, half-jokingly with a shrug.

Although families acutely feel the squeeze, adults with no children also have problems keeping up, especially the elderly. In 1999, more than 37 percent of the nearly 350,000 individuals living alone in Chicago were not earning the $17,092 necessary to meet Pearce’s self-sufficiency standard for single-person households. Nearly 60 percent of those 65 years and older, about 55,000 people, had incomes below that mark.

Thanks to rising heating costs, Marlene Mosby, a former hearing officer for the Illinois Department of Public Aid, who lives on her state pension, has had to juggle various bills. Sometimes she keeps them afloat, and sometimes they come crashing down around her. “I just got a disconnection notice for the last [heating] bill and had to pay by credit card to prevent it from being cut off,” said Mosby, who rents her large two-bedroom apartment in the South Side’s Chatham neighborhood from a friend who gives her a discount on the rent. But, even with the savings, fluctuations with the heating bill—$85 one month, $180 another month, then up to $360 the next month—have been too hard for Mosby to manage. “If I could get on a budget plan that’s reasonable, like $100 or $120, I can do that,” she said. “But, if they start going back and forth, I don’t know what to do.”

Mosby stays one step ahead by basically pushing the limits of her due dates on other bills. She has gone some months skipping her light bill payments and has waited until she received disconnection notices from the phone company before making arrangements to stretch out those payments for another couple of weeks.

Because she lives alone—she is divorced and her four grown children left home long ago—Mosby said she saves a lot on food, and senior discounts are also a lifesaver. She is also a few payments away from owning her car, which she said will be a $300-a-month financial burden off of her back. “But I’m a little apprehensive about how things are going to go in the next 10 years,” she said. “I might have to adjust my living spaces and get a smaller apartment or senior living apartment.”

Mosby has reason to be especially concerned about her heating bill this winter; Hurricanes Katrina and Rita temporarily shut down production at natural gas refineries in the Gulf region, said Elizabeth Castro, a spokeswoman for People’s Energy. The loss of production will ultimately increase home heating bills, she said.

Some said the living wage gaps have widened, in part, because of the deterioration of strong, unified labor unions and the loss of well-paying, low-skilled jobs.

Keith Kelleher, head organizer of Service Employees International Union Local 880, estimated that about 35 percent of U.S. workers in the private sector were members of labor unions back in the 1950s. According to the Illinois Department of Labor, among the state’s workforce in 2002, about 24 percent of men and 17 percent of women were members of labor unions. “Those numbers hurt,” Kelleher said. “If you don’t have as many members out there pushing politically for things, you can’t get what you want.”

Despite their decreasing strength, unions are still fighting for living wages, said Carl Rosen, president of District 11 United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. “If you come into new organizing with a situation [with low wages] there’s pressure to get $1 or $2 an hour. [The employees] may still be in poverty because they’re so low to begin with, but it’s a step up.”

Rosen also points to the exodus of manufacturing jobs in Chicago as a reason why some workers don’t earn a living wage. Those jobs, which often paid well and helped create a middle-class existence for many, have been stripped away, leaving many low-skilled workers with the lowest-paying jobs available.

However, successful living wage movements have coalesced in cities across the nation, including Chicago, around the idea of paying wages that, at the very least, can be increased for inflation. The movements are usually loosely knit groups of unions, city workers, think tanks and nonprofit organizations, such as the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, who have started grassroots campaigns.

In the summer of 1998, the Living Wage Movement, a coalition spearheaded by Service Employees International Union’s Local 880 and ACORN’s Chicago branch, successfully completed a three-year battle for a living wage ordinance in Chicago. The ordinance, which went into effect in 1999, assured a minimum of $7.60 per hour to home and healthcare workers, security guards, parking attendants, day laborers, cashiers, custodial workers, clerical workers and elevator operators that are city contractors and subcontractors. The ordinance only applies to for-profit companies and doesn’t require employers to provide health benefits, but the minimum pay increases every July—it currently stands at $9.68 an hour.

Jen Kern, director of ACORN’s Living Wage Resource Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., said 130 cities or counties across the nation have added living wage ordinances with help from the center’s organizing efforts. But she believes the Living Wage movement is starting to emphasize statewide minimum wages for all workers. She points to Illinois, where lawmakers signed a bill in 2003 raising the statewide minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $5.50 per hour. The state increased it again to $6.50 an hour this January.

Wisconsin, Minnesota and states along the East and West Coasts also have established statewide minimum wages, Kern said. Congress hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage since 1997.

Madeline Talbott, Chicago ACORN’s head organizer, would love to see a law that causes the minimum wage to rise with inflation. “A minimum wage increase has a measurable impact on poverty,” Talbott said. “There’s families who benefited dramatically from that [first] increase who could now pay utility bills and who could consider purchasing a used car.”

The coalition that fought for a living wage in Chicago is also spearheading an effort to establish a big-box living wage ordinance, which would require retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target to pay their employees a minimum of $10 an hour plus benefits, Talbot said.

“Many people who have inadequate income are working hard; many of them have two jobs. The issue is costs,” said Pearce. “We’re forcing people to make bad choices and they’re looking at paying the rent or paying childcare but not doing both.”

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