I got my first real job in 1992 just after graduating high school. Prior to that I’d done baby sitting and lawn mowing and other odd jobs for cash, but with my diploma in hand and heading to college, I needed a real job. I applied at a few places but I ended up taking a job at Kroger, a grocery store, for two reasons. First, it was a night stock position and for some reason I liked the idea of working 3rd shift. Second, as a 3rd shift job I was offered a rate of $3.55 an hour. Technically it was a minimum wage job, and the minimum wage at the time was $3.25, but Kroger offered 30 cents per hour “premium” to 3rd shift employees. When the summer came to an end and I was preparing to start college, I needed to kick 3rd shift, so I got a transfer to day stock in the “non-foods” department (which also included the video store – yes, Kroger used to rent movies). At the time, I’d done a good job and they let me keep my 30 cent “premium” as a raise. About eight months later I would take the position of “Lead Video Clerk” and wind up making $4.25 an hour.
I told you all of that to tell you this… My parents paid for my first year of college, which I royally screwed up. After that, they stopped paying and I had to take over if I wished to continue. I took the Lead Video Clerk position and my 40 hours a week, moved out with a roommate and paid for my own college. The college I went to cost around $500 per Quarter for a full load (12 credit hours) of classes. At the time, they were on the Quarter system, so 3 Quarters for a standard year, but you could also attend the summer session. The school says it was $1,500 a year, which is about right. The summer session was short, 8 weeks, so I usually skipped it as a break from school and to allow myself the summer to do other things. I was making around $8,000 a year, give or take, after taxes and then my refund. So, 8000 – 1500 = $6,500 per year for “everything else”. 6500 / 12 = $541 a month. In 1993 I could live on that. I believe my share of rent and utilities was around $300 a month, then food and gas (average of $1 a gallon, or less) and stuff… I wasn’t saving much money, but I wasn’t living on credit. By the time I graduated in 1998, I’d upgraded jobs through the school’s intern program and was making $7 an hour as a PC technician/Tech Support guy (minimum wage in Georgia was still $3.25), tuition was up to a little over $2,000 a year (though 2 Semesters now instead of 3 Quarters), rent and utilities had gone up too, but I was doing quite well. (It wasn’t until after college that I screwed up my credit – but that is not germane to this story). Even so, had I still been making minimum wage, or close to it, I could still have afforded college. I probably would have needed a another roommate or two, but still.
Now, before I go on, keep in mind that the fees I listed above weren’t really just “tuition” but the final out-of-pocket price, including other school fees. So, my $1,500 a year was actually around $400 tuition a Quarter plus some administration fees, parking pass, etc. Currently, my alma mater boasts a tuition of about $5,000 a year for local students, but they also tack on about $1,600 in fees. A year there will cost a student about $6,600 just for the school. On top of that a student will need an apartment, food, car, etc…
Problem. Minimum wage right now in Georgia is $5.15 . Don’t worry though, thanks to the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007, a state can’t be lower than federal except in certain circumstances, you’ll get $7.25, so working full-time will earn you about $14,500 a year – if you can get full-time. Lots of people are having trouble getting full-time work these days, so you’ll either need multiple jobs or settle for less. So let’s say you’ll get $12,000 a year as a fresh-faced kid out of high school with no experience. Most anything you get taken in taxes you’ll get back in your refund. 12000 – 6600 = $5,400. Divide that by 12 and a minimum wage making student going to my old school will have to figure out how to live on about $450 a month. You would need like 5 roommates, live in a shit hole apartment and eat nothing but rice, potatoes and other bulk foods. I mean, a decent cell phone plan is going to run your about a fifth of your budget if you want a smart phone. Oh, wait… we haven’t even bought textbooks yet! There goes another fifth of the budget! Hope you live real close to the school and have a car that gets good mileage, gas prices are more than 3 times what they were when I was putting myself through college! In fact, everything is more expensive now than back in the 1993 to 1998 time frame of my college days, and I had nearly $100 more a month to live on.
It has become all but impossible for a minimum wage earner to put themselves through school without help. And yet in 1993 I was doing it, without running up a bunch of debt. Twenty years later and you almost require financial aid of some sort – scholarships, grants, loans or parents. This is not good. When the people at the bottom cannot afford to better themselves, everyone loses. I don’t want to get all political, but people on the Right always talk about self-starters and people picking themselves up by their bootstraps and making successes of themselves without the help of anyone else… those stories are more rare these days, and crushing debt from getting a college education is a large part of it.
I’m not sure what needs to be done about it, but it’s something that I don’t think can be ignored for much longer.