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Living Algebra, Living Wage

By Jana Dean

Advocates for the working poor set living wages for U.S. communities by researching typical housing, childcare, food, medical, and transportation expenses in a given community. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the living wage for the Tumwater, Wash., area, which includes no "extras" such as new shoes, big screen TVs or birthday presents, is $39,000 for a family of three, or about $19 an hour full time. This is about twice the federal poverty level. Agencies use the poverty level to determine government assistance and as an economic indicator. While 12.6 percent of our state's population lives below the federal poverty level, 26.9 percent of all people live in households whose income is below a living wage, as determined by the EPI. Most of those households have heads of household who are employed. This mirrors the nation.

Thinking to launch our study with an engaging story, I read out loud from Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. I chose a section in the middle of the chapter "Selling in Minnesota" in which Ehrenriech describes her struggle to pay for the clothes she needs for her new job at Wal-Mart and her frustration at how tedious and difficult the work is. I chose it because I thought it illustrated the complexities and compromises that come with accepting a low-wage job.

My students didn't respond at all. Rather than the open-eyed engagement I'd expected, they zeroed in on the fine art of finding and tracing nicks and scratches in the surfaces of their desks. Either I'd completely missed the mark, or I'd struck too close to home.

Tapping Students' Opinions

Luckily, I had a planning period before I was to teach this lesson to my next class. It was possible my students didn't need Barbara Ehrenreich. Maybe they had some personal experience I could draw on instead. To my next class, I read the following statements out loud:

  1. Those who work should be paid.
  2. No one who works full time should live in poverty.
  3. Wages should be high enough to support a family on one income.
  4. The legal minimum wage should be high enough to get by.

I then asked students to talk to their partner about each statement and to say whether they agreed or disagreed with it. Afterward, they wrote their responses in their notebooks.




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