Wages in PA: How far does $20 stretch?

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For Amanda Rivera, a 21-year-old single mother in Reading, Pennsylvania, $20 is a few packs of meat and some rice. Half of her cellphone bill. Could be a couple of infant outfits from the Goodwill, or enough baby formula for four — maybe five — days.

She earns $8.25 per hour making calls for a technology research center, a wage that forces her to live paycheck to paycheck to support herself and her 10-month-old son, Leonardo Alexander.

Money is the biggest stress in Rivera’s life, she said, and a boost in the state’s minimum wage to the proposed $10.10 per hour would help lessen her burden.

“If they raise (the minimum wage), it would take a little bit of weight off people’s shoulders,” Rivera said. “I’d have more to look forward to instead of busting my butt working the 40 hours a week and then seeing only $200-something in my account. I’m like, ‘Wow, I worked so hard for next to nothing.’”

In a week, Rivera earns $330 — but after deducting state and federal payroll taxes such as income, Social Security and Medicare, she is left with less than $250 to cover her basic living expenses such as rent, food and childcare.

Her one bedroom apartment costs $600 per month to rent, but she said her landlord works with her situation, allowing her to pay as she can. Sometimes it is each week. On one occasion, she owed three months’ rent at once.

“I get my checks and make sure I put a certain part away for the rent, and that’s the biggest thing,” Rivera said. “As long as I had my rent paid, I was OK.”

She is on the hunt for a new apartment in Bethlehem, but other landlords are not as accommodating, and she does not have the cash to put down a security deposit and pay the first month’s rent up front.

She turns to public assistance to help pay for her son’s daycare, which can cost nearly $1,000 per month, according to a U.S. average calculated by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. Rivera pays a copay of just $40 per month — roughly the cost of only one day of daycare at the regular rate.

She considers herself lucky to get support from welfare programs and her lenient landlord.

Without them, Rivera said she couldn’t get by on her own.

If she did not have a son to take care of when she’s not working at the call center, Rivera said she would have two or three jobs.

“I’d make it work — I’d be tired, but I’d do it,” she said.

And if she could, she’d get a higher paying job. But she was raised by a single mother of four girls and could not afford to get a college degree. She pursued her passion for cosmetology and fashion in beauty school for a bit, but had to drop out when she moved to Reading.

“Those businesses that that pay more, they require more,” Rivera said. “Because I didn’t have the money to go to college, I don’t have what they’re looking for. I have the experience, but they don’t care about that.”

Rivera has to carefully budget her money — she has to spend every dollar she earns and does not have a cent in savings. Someday she hopes to save up enough to buy a car to get to work and the baby’s appointments but for now, that’s out of the question. Money is just too tight.

Instead, she rides the bus to work — $4 for a day pass and $47 for the month.

If she brings Leonardo with her, she has to lug his car seat, stroller and baby bag along.

“For one person, it’s a lot,” she said.

Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, said as prices inflate over time while wages stay the same, low wage workers’ purchasing power diminishes and their income doesn’t stretch as far as it once did.

The proposed legislation to boost the minimum wage to $10.10 would raise incomes for 1.2 million Pennsylvanian workers, according to the Keystone Research Center.

Price said increasing the minimum wage would better equip them to afford the basics.

Basics such as a Thanksgiving dinner, for instance. Rivera’s was simple this year because she could not afford a traditional meal.

“I thank God that (Leonardo) couldn’t eat — he doesn’t eat real food, so it didn’t affect him as much,” she said. “It just hurts. When I think about it, I used to have everything that my mom gave me, and now I can’t give it to my son.”

Rivera’s aunt, Bennie Khamneh, was a young mom herself. She said she’s experienced firsthand how difficult it is, and she lends Rivera support however she can.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it — I see her struggling,” Khamneh said. “I see her hitting pretty far down as far as rock bottom goes. But I see her pulling herself up and succeeding . . .  I’m pretty confident that she’s going to get through it just fine.”

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