Scraping by on D.C.’s minimum wage

Steve Monroe, a retired editor and current freelance communications professional, reads The Washington Post. Photo by Madeline Jarrard.

Steve Monroe, a retired editor and current freelance communications professional, reads The Washington Post at the Tenleytown Starbucks. Photo by Madeline Jarrard.

Jacob Atkins, 24, has worked several minimum wage jobs and participated in a service program called AmeriCorps to put himself through several colleges including American University in Washington D.C.

A Maine native, Atkins has been living in Washington D.C. for a few years, but he believes the city’s minimum wage is not enough to live on.

“I’ve been working since I was 15 years old, so I’m pretty used to being relatively broke all the time,” Atkins said, “but learning how to still pursue my dreams and gain experiences through different jobs.”

Minimum wage workers like Atkins must work 118 hours a week to be able to afford a typical two bedroom apartment in Washington D.C., according to a recent National Low Income Housing Coalition report. That leaves many cash-strapped and unable to plan for a future.

Steve Monroe, a 66-year-old Washington D.C. native, sat at a high top table at the Tenleytown Starbucks sipping a $2 cup of coffee with a crinkled Washington Post off to the side while he talked about his own experience with minimum wage as a young man.

Monroe, a retired journalist, says his career and current freelance work means he lives a comfortable lifestyle now. He can afford his rent, take vacations and eat at upscale restaurants. But he remembers his own struggle with low-wage work and sympathizes with those now who earn the city’s hourly $10.50 minimum wage.

“I have been involved with people who were just scraping by or were on welfare or working minimum wage,” said Monroe, who noted he has done both community work and mentoring. “I’m kind of a humanitarian by nature.”

Sylvia Davis, 48, who is also a Washington D.C. native, believes wealthy people’s awareness about the income gap and the struggles of low-wage workers in D.C. is relative.

Jacob Atkins (left), 24, a rising senior at American University in Washington D.C., jokes with Dylan Liberman, a 17-year-old high school student from Manhattan.

Jacob Atkins (left), 24, a rising senior at American University in Washington D.C., jokes with Dylan Liberman, a 17-year-old high school student from Manhattan.

Davis feels she’s aware because of her own humble beginning and her experience working her way through college, but she said it ultimately depends on people’s exposure and compassion.

“I think people who are spending lots of money on discretionary items sometimes can overlook folks,” Davis said. “But then there a lot of people that don’t and who are compassionate and realize that folks, they rely upon their tips, they rely upon keeping that job, and paying for their family to have food.”

Atkins, a teaching assistant for a summer communications camp in Washington, said while there are people who work minimum wage jobs for an interim period to put themselves through college, he noted there are others who rely on those jobs as adults. He feels the wage should accommodate all people.

“You need to be being paid a reasonable rate to survive because they are supporting families,” Atkins said.