Making it out of Whole Foods with a dollar left is always a sign of divine intervention. Most days however, it’s a New York mugging, minus the leather jacket and .38 Caliber revolver. But we shop there, like idiots. By idiots I mean idiots of all kind, short, tall, wealthy, small, and broke. People come from far and wide for the experience that is whole foods. The samples of chia infused with bacon and wheat grass shots leave any aspiring yuppy spellbound. But I grew up in the “Other America”, where ice cream men do drive by shootings of diabetes and corner stores stack processed foods to the rim. My point of view will forever be colored with this history. Even now, folks like me who would be considered “middle class” feel like we participate in a sick joke. $100.00 might get you dinner for three days, but I doubt it, considering how small the portions end up being. I could only imagine what it’s like when you’re paid pennies on the dollar or mentally how to manage on that income…
For families relying on a minimum wage Whole Foods is never an option. After playing the role of their own Certified Public Accountant, minimum wage earners realize there isn’t much room for anything, groceries included. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), “The falling minimum wage has led to poverty and inequality. Today, at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, working 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year yields an annual income of only $15,080. As shown in the figure, this is below the federal poverty line for families of two or more.“ A good portion of American citizens are playing on this fiscal minefield. There is an America that wishes to make ends meet, and another that wants meat for dinner, not just on special occasions. I am not an economist and I do believe that most people are willing to break their backs to feed their families, but the pay isn’t stretching far enough anymore. No one can debate it, and socially, it’s turning laborers into depressed remnants of a forgotten working class. I walked in to the dollar general recently and encountered a clerk who displayed all the telltale signs of minimum wage fatigue. Her uniform needed a grandmother’s love. She rarely looked me in the eye while she slid the 2 bags of flaming hot Cheetos across the scanner. Beeps from register were the only reminder that I was in the social dance of customer service and not at the MVA. “That’ll be 3 dollars and 50 cents” she barked at me. I began mining for change in my pockets and was hurried along with a long sigh, punctuated by the crackle of over-chewed gum. Her name tag read “Jessica”. I attempted to halt what was happening, I said like a concerned uncle, “Retail is crazy I did it for three years. Let’s say I built character” . The person with the badge that said Jessica, returned a placid stare and bagged my snacks with more velocity now. I gathered my pride and purchases and headed for the door, but how I could I leave without imparting wisdom to this adolescent. “Customer service is tough, a good attitude always helps” I said with a piercing smile.
She effectively sucked all of her teeth before turning around to ring the next victim up. I thought a lot about what could bring about this type of behavior. People aren’t inherently miserable. The job must be tough, hours long, customers too demanding, all came to the forefront of my mind. My personal adventures into stores often play out the same way. But the problem was much deeper. Dollar General, is among a plethora of companies that pay workers between $7-$9 per hour. Could that have an impact on her service along with other things? This means that even if Jessica worked 40 hours per week and even overtime she would still be having a significantly hard time surviving. She, like a slew of others, will probably have to get a part-time job wherein she will continue he patron abuse. Johnathan Heller just wrote in May of this year, “Overwork, poor quality food, housing insecurity, and other consequences of low wages and unemployment contribute to physical and mental health problems including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and depression.”
You hear the stories all the time, a single mom struggling at a dead-end job, wins the lottery and is catapulted into riches overnight. Megamillions guaranteed the opportunity for generational wealth. For the rest of families living on next to nothing, the day after the lotto drawing is back to the grind. The reality is that minimum wage more often than not is a trap itself. Our American spirit of working for the sake of working doesn’t help the case of employees stuck in this conundrum. In the U.S, having a job is a prerequisite for breathing. It’s just now the availability of truly meaningful work and pay is few and far between. Rarely do the clerks at burger king seem elated to hand you a quarter pound worth of GMO sludge. Work, Stress, Meaningfulness, and survival make a complex intersection under capitalism. Employees find themselves drudging away at jobs with no substance, mentally leveled, and beholden to the daily necessities of life. As so many others have put it plainly, it seems much like slavery. Philosopher Karl Marx wrote extensively about the social dangers of money itself before. He believed that money caused people to be alienated from their tasks. For the most part I agree with him. “If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, connecting me with nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, also the universal agent of separation?”, he remarked in The Communist Manifesto. Since our foundation as wage workers here is intrinsically built upon the passing and going of money, every minute of the day not being spent in labor could be qualified as a missed opportunity to cash in. And that’s how most see it. “Time is money” isn’t a cliche statement, it’s a religion. Money then is made to be immediately spent. On the TV we are bombarded with images of stars who have spent their coins on sports cars and Victorian style homes. They wanted it, money got it. So, luxuries collected, were extensions of themselves. The yacht, bought with cash, is seen as an enhancement to the actors being, it makes him bigger than life essentially. Marx abhorred these lies because upon death personal use of money comes to a screeching halt. Being on the low end of totem pole means time is money that never adds up. More importantly, it never adds up to waking up in a new Bugatti. Rapper 50 cent’s time got him a Lamborghini, a minimum wage worker’s got him/her food to last this week. The sense that that 50 Cent is perceived as a more valuable person is erroneous, especially when the idea is marketed every 10 minutes to people who can’t relatee.
I don’t dream of a Utopia, where everyone gets a fair share of all the hard work. Capitalism brought us the iPhone, 600 Mercedes, and Now&Later candy. Who would argue with those? Our Economic system also manufactured the military industrial complex and the recession of 2008. Iraq and my neighborhood in West Baltimore both caught the brunt of that. The Wall Street Journal reported that the top CEO’s bathe in 373 times the money of the Average worker in America. It makes me wonder if they really worked hard for it all. So I get it, I could just be shopping at hours of the day that any employee would be miserable being at work, or the toll of minimum wage is like a never ending migraine, and the 10 minute smoke break, store brand tylenol.
I shop Trader Joe’s right now. The Yuppies there are a bit more down to Earth.
“I feel like somebody time gotta be worth more than $8 an hour. So you spend your whole day going to work, eight hours out of your day, the day is only 24 hours. You sleep eight of those, so that’s 16 hours. Half of your day is making $8 an hour. Even if you get $15 an hour and they’re trying to raise minimum rage to what, $15? Okay, but I got to do it. I got to work. I got to eat. It’s like being on a plantation, man.” ~ Rapper J. Cole