National Tour on Minimum Wage Tosses Houstonians Between Rocks and Hard Places

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Qvtaive Harris is 20 years old. He's slender, with knobby elbows and a small afro, wearing sharp white pants and a teal shirt from the Texas Organizing Project. He's sitting, surrounded by a half-dozen mothers, another half-dozen reporters, and a small woman from the Department of Labor.

The women had already spoken, swapping tales of children and college and health costs running uphill. Some, like those from Fe y Justicia, a local Latino employment aid organization, required Spanish-English translation. Some were fine sharing their decades-long experiences of hopping paychecks, living hand-to-mouth. Some were fine extrapolating their story out, noting the effects that their experiences had on the local communities. All looked at one another with small smiles and words of support.

Then, it was Harris's turn to speak. "I was recently evicted -- I couldn't get enough money for the bills," Harris said. His voice was low -- he seemed shy, surrounded by women with as much responsibility as you can conjure for a Single Working Mother. "Now, I gotta live in a three-bedroom house, six other adults, one kid. It's hard, just, it's hard, with the way the economy is ...."

Harris lets his afro sag. There's a pause, and a slight kick in his throat. He puts his hand on his head, and starts again: "But I'd rather do something. I know a lot of people like me -- a lot of people worse than me - who are doing things that just aren't right. And I just think we should all live decent lives in this great country we have."

Decent lives. Decent dreams, and decent jobs, and decent lives that can provide some form of sustenance and dignity and sanity. That's all Harris wants. That's all these women ask. That's the reason Mary Beth Maxwell, acting deputy administrator for the Wage and Hour Division, is sitting in the headquarters of Fe y Justicia, surrounding herself with Houstonians scraping and scratching by on what the government takes to calling a "minimum wage."

Along with her DOL colleagues, Maxwell is touring the nation to meet with locals attempting to survive on minimum wage. Following President Obama's call in February's State of the Union to raise the minimum wage, Maxwell and colleagues have conversed with folks across the nation: in Pittsburgh, in Cleveland, in Philadelphia.

But, according to Maxwell's statistics, none of the stops to date have presented as many individuals on minimum wage as Texas.

"You look at Texas, with 9.5 percent of the workforce on minimum wage," Maxwelll, carrying a neon flower bestowed as thanks by Fe y Justicia, told Hair Balls. "That's tied with Mississippi for the highest rate in the country. And $7.25 just doesn't cut it for local families. It can't."

Which is the reason Maxwell, with the help of TOP and Fe y Justicia, organizes meetings centered on those who must choose between ground beef or light bills, or between college tuition or diabetes medication.

As Maxwell notes, the $9 proposed minimum wage hike would only return spending power to the mid-1980s level. For some reason, she notes, the federal minimum wage remains non-indexed to inflation -- a logical and salient solution that, perhaps predictably, has escaped Congress's efforts.

"We have to do more," Maxwell said. She turns to those at the table, thanking them for their stories and struggles. "We have a lot of powerful mamas in this country, don't we?"

The group laughed, digesting the stories, the parallel tales of mothers struggling every day they see. There was Maria Martinez, a mother of two, working 48 hours a week at a doughnut company to try to make ends meet. There was Deb Walker, talking about her recent diabetes and hypertension diagnoses, talking about making funeral arrangements because she didn't want to have to bury her family when they bury her. There was Sara Mianda, making $250 a week, trying to shelter her three kids and two grandkids, talking through her Kleenex, talking through her tears.

"I can't pay my phone, can't pay my rent," Mianda says, removing her glasses to wipe her eyes. "I can't support my family. That's why I'm here." Maxwell reaches out, touching her arm. Thanking her for sacrificing a day of work to share the story of a mother sinking and a family hungry.

"President Obama said it was time to reward hard work -- that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should have a job that can support you and your family," Maxwell said, looking around. "All of your stories are so powerful. All of these stories help."

As it is, House Republicans unanimously voted down a potential minimum wage hike to $10.10 on Friday. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), meanwhile, has stated that he believes a jump to $9 would effectively stall the economy, hampering small business growth.

But, as Walker notes, any and all additional funds tacked on to the minimum wage would head straight back into the local economies. It's not as if those on minimum wage can save, she says. Not with inflation like it is.

Harris mostly listened along, following these mothers and their tales of children and upcoming college tuitions. He was quiet. It wasn't until the end that he put out his story -- that he discussed his nights without a roof; that he opened up about an aunt with sickle cell anemia relying solely on his income.

"For my generation, for the next generation, for the one after that -- we gotta do something," he says, voice soft. "I've seen some real stupid things with my own eyes. And I could do some of those stupid things if I wanted to. I used to be one of those confused dudes. But I've never been to prison."

Murmurs of agreement. Comments of concurrence.

"I've slept in bridges and next to freeways," he finishes, running his hand once more through his hair, letting it fall by his side. "This raise will help more than you know."

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