Someone working full time at minimum wage earns $10,712 a year—that's $8,000 less than what the government defines as poverty.
Why should you care? These are the very people we rely on every day. They are the teachers' aides in your child's classroom. They are caring for your aging parents in the nursing home. They make sure your hotel rooms, your offices and your schools are clean. They are security guards keeping buildings safe. They are paramedics who are there in your most desperate hour.
They agreed on three ground rules for their experiment: They had to earn minimum wage, they could start with only one week's pay in cash, and they had to freeze their credit cards.
On day two, Morgan and Alex set out to find their low-wage jobs. Alex found a job bussing tables and washing dishes in a downtown coffee shop, and Morgan registered with a temp agency. For his first assignment the next day he was promised at least $7 an hour—$1.85 more than minimum wage. "Not bad," Morgan said.
The next day, however, Morgan and Alex got a big wake-up call. Including his bus commute, Morgan ended up spending 11 hours a day away from home and earned only $45.26. This breaks down to just $4.20 an hour.
The financial stress put a strain on his relationship with Alex. In fact, Morgan explains, "There are twice as many divorces in families that make less than $25,000 than families that make $50,000."
Meanwhile, many low-wage households have children. Morgan and Alex got a taste of what raising kids on a shoestring budget is like when Morgan's niece and nephew came to stay for the weekend.
Morgan decided to take the weekend off to spend time with them. On one outing, they went to a dollar movie theater...but then bought drinks and candy. Alex was more than a little upset at Morgan for this "spending spree." "We're going and spending 12 bucks at the movie just on drinks. That doesn't seem very smart."
Morgan says manual labor had aggravated a wrist injury, but he couldn't afford a doctor's visit. When he tried to visit a free clinic, he was told there weren't enough doctors to see him that day.
The free clinic was not even an option when Alex woke up in the middle of the night with a urinary tract infection. They went to the emergency room and to a 24-hour pharmacy to fill Alex's prescription. Later that day, the pain in Morgan's wrist forced him to go to the emergency room as well.
The bills from the emergency room were enough to significantly harm their budget. "We went to the hospital to get Alex's bill. Just for walking into the emergency room it was $300," Morgan said. "My bill? Just to walk in the door, $551. It's incredible."
Seeing just how difficult living near minimum wage was, Morgan made some changes in his life. "At my own company we didn't have health care, so the minute I got back, I got everybody who worked for me health care immediately."
Morgan says he's also more aware of issues facing the millions living near the poverty line. "There are so many people who don't need a handout. They need a hand up."
Alex says it made her want the burdens of poverty eased. "It made me realize we need to talk to the people who represent us and say this needs to change on a national level," she says. "This is totally unacceptable for this country."