Published On: Wed, Jan 29th, 2014

Low-Wage Reality for West Virginia Families

By Dan Heyman, WVNS

As the West Virginia Legislature debates raising the minimum wage, lawmakers will talk about how hard work is necessary to get ahead. But sometimes language like that glosses over the reality of working poor families trapped by low wages and debt.

Ray and Nicole are a couple with a young son in Logan County. Both of them are struggling to get better-than-entry-level work, but they don’t feel confident enough to use their full names here. Ray says last year he finally got something above the minimum. But he says sometimes he still can’t afford his commute.

“There’s been a lot of times that I myself have been short before the paycheck comes in. Unfortunately, I have to admit, it’s easy to pull out the credit card,” Ray said. “If it wasn’t for the credit card, there’s times I’d be out of gas.”

Many folks assume minimum-wage employees are teenagers earning spending money. But according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour would benefit 120,000 workers in West Virginia, and a huge proportion are families such as Ray and Nicole. Supporters say the boost could help those families dig themselves out of debt.

Nicole says that’s a big part of their situation: credit card debts, Ray’s student loans and medical bills for their son.

“I saved up my money and paid $1,100 off on that bill. And then he still owes about $9,000 to $10,000 in student loans,” Nicole said.

Health insurance is an issue for the couple. Ray now has coverage through his job, and their son has CHIP. Nicole is getting insurance through the new health insurance exchange. But before, Ray says, the cost of the insurance they got through her job would soak up most all of Nicole’s minimum-wage paycheck.

“She brought home nearly nothing for every two weeks. As a matter of fact, if she’d happen to catch a stomach virus or something, or miss two, three days of work in a paycheck, the paycheck’d be less than $100,” Ray recalls.

Critics of raising the minimum wage say it would cut hiring. But economic studies comparing states that raised their minimum wage with those that didn’t found it has little impact on the number of jobs.