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April 3, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST
I can still smell the cigarette smoke, a thick stench that sunk into my pores and clothes for days. I can feel the cheese-encrusted tabletops washed with a wet rag in one hand and a plastic tub of dirty dishes in the other. I can hear the sizzle and pop of fried chicken on the grill and recall the soreness in my feet, the relief of the quiet streets at midnight.
My part-time position as a server at a small-town pizzeria for five years taught me valuable lessons. For one, don’t waste precious time. (See: chatting with boy who ordered a well-done steak at closing time leads to boss yelling at you.) I also learned everyone makes mistakes, but life, and dinner, go on. And I knew that I wanted something more.
I’ve never felt the weight of living in poverty or trying to feed a family on minimum wage, but I’ve watched people put their all into exhausting jobs for little pay. Some of my coworkers were single moms working several part-time positions with late hours. It’s commonplace for students to juggle multiple jobs to pay for college. Opportunity is the foundation of our country, but it can be expensive.
In the current debate over the proposal to raise the minimum wage, Democrats cite a report that shows the increase would boost income for 16.5 million people, and Republicans refer to a study that claims it would cut 500,000 jobs. A compromise appears to be in the works, but the nuances of people’s real lives can get lost in the statistics.
This week, Vox features community members’ who live on low-wage work. The picture extends beyond the teenager who works summers for spending cash or the family of five living on less than $20,000. Many of these people dream about finishing their degrees. Others are rising above a criminal record or childhood poverty. All want better lives.
These are the faces of minimum wage.