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This Congressman lived on the minimum wage

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 5:55 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio took the minimum wage challenge
  • His family of five lived off the minimum wage for one week
  • Some were critical of his efforts, saying it pales in comparison to what low-wage workers face
  • Obama and Democrats have pushed to raise the minimum wage

(CNN) -- Raising the minimum wage continues to be a top Democratic economic priority, insisting that higher pay is critical to helping lift the working poor out of poverty.

Some members of Congress put their money where their mouth is.

Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio is one Democratic lawmaker who took the "live the wage challenge" -- to live on pay of $7.25 per hour for one week.

The effort promoted by Americans United for Change, an advocacy group funded in large part by labor unions, was established to mark the fifth anniversary of the last federal increase in the minimum wage.

Its generic calculation estimates those earners, after housing and bills, have $77 for the week for food, gas, entertainment and emergencies.

A family of five and $154

Ryan and his wife, who did the late July challenge with him, had $154 for his family of two pre-teen children and a newborn.

President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress have advocated lifting the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. But many Republicans oppose that, saying that it would cause economic hardship for businesses and lead to job loss or stalled employment growth.

As the challenge began, Ryan, whose congressional salary pays him 11.6 times the minimum wage, said he was "nervous about the whole thing."

But he knew that if he ran out of money before the end of seven days, the only consequence would be losing the challenge. He would be able to dip into his bank account and buy things he needed.

An early obstacle

So why even do it?

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"Because the alternative is to look the other way," he said.

About 22% of his constituents in his Akron district live on the minimum wage.

So with $154 in his pocket, he ran into his first roadblock by noon on the first day -- the unexpected kind of expense that can throw a low-wage worker's budget into a tail spin.

His wife, who is at their home in Ohio, said their newborn needed Vitamin D drops and some other incidentals that cost about $25.

"A few hours in and we're already recognizing the challenges," he said in his office on Capitol Hill.

Anticipating his weekend ahead, Ryan said he was going to have buy hamburger meat and not steak, sardines instead of salmon. Or forgo meat altogether for rice and beans.

He and his wife planned out their meals and their grocery list and clipped coupons.

Also out for the weekend -- a family trip to the drive-in.

"We're probably going to have to stay home and rent a movie," he said.

Can't afford it

Back home, the Ryan family didn't even do that. His kids stepped in and told him they couldn't afford it.

What they did do is eat a lot of pancakes and "lucked out" one night, not having to pay for dinner by going to a friend's picnic.

But summer camp for his 10-year-old daughter busted their budget.

With two days to go in the challenge, it was time for him to travel back to Washington (a cost not included in the rules). Ryan had a little more than $4 left.

He spent his last few dollars on trail mix from the convenience store in the basement of a House office building. Actually, it cost a bit more than what he had left so he had to dig into his pre-challenge pocket to pay the difference.

'We didn't make it but it was a great experience," he said.

Gubernatorial candidate goes homeless to prove point

Ryan said he was, to a small extent, able to understand the challenges of living on the minimum wage. He admitted that he and his family were going to eat even if they don't meet the challenge and that many families go to the food bank or just don't eat if they run out before the next paycheck. But he said he learned valuable lessons.

A curveball

"One little small curveball can really throw you for a loop. Then you have stress. And ... stress makes you sick, then it drives up health care costs," he said. "It really drove the point home to me that all of these things are interconnected and if we don't start approaching our economy, our health policies, our food policies as ... interconnected, we're never going to solve the problem."

Ryan logged his journey on his Facebook page. It led to a discussion that included more than 600 comments. Many of them from low-wage workers who say he could never understand what they go through.

Here's one comment by Eric M. Chaffin: "Really and this is who is an appointed Congressman. The audacity to post this is out of my realm of belief. So sorry you had to eat trail mix to get through one afternoon. Thank GOD you and your family didnt have to survive on Ramen Noodles, Bologna, and Mac and Cheese like so many of us out there week to week. Smh."

That's the point

And Amanda Callaway wrote, "Trying paying rent and bills and feed your family and put gas in a very unreliable car because you can't afford anything reliable then when it breaks down and you got to pick what bill wont get paid so you can fix your car."

Ryan's response: "You are talking about the minimum wage right now." And that's the point, he said.

"There is no way my wife and I could simulate the stress levels and decision making that has to go into living on a minimum wage," he said. "Our job (in Congress) is to go understand to the best we can what our constituents need and I'm not going to apologize for that," he said.

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