WASHINGTON, DC—Two weeks after the hourly federal minimum wage was raised from $5.15 to $5.85, families across the country were still celebrating the historic increase by running their electric fans, buying coveted half-gallons of milk, and, like Charice Williams of Shreveport, LA, purchasing name-brand ketchup to share with loved ones.
"I can't remember the last time I could afford Hunt's," said the 41-year-old mother of six, who for more than a decade has purchased ValuTime ketchup to garnish everything from Hamburger Helper to Tuna Helper. "Another couple dozen wage increases like this, and we'll be practically swimming in Heinz. Or at least my grandchildren will."
Whether buying national-brand condiments, allowing themselves two additional squares of toilet paper, or paying for a few more minutes of drying time at the laundromat, the estimated 13 million Americans who subsist on minimum wages are getting a taste of the good life. Jaime Santiago of Las Cruces, NM was working a double shift at a 24-hour car wash Tuesday night, but still managed to celebrate by calling home collect during his break—and, for the first time in years, his wife was able to accept the charges.
"I told her I had a surprise for the family when I got home, and I wasn't kidding: chewable vitamins for the kids," said Santiago, 29. "On Sunday, I'm going to surprise them again with a nice bus ride out to Wal-Mart to walk around a little. Then I'm going to pull back for a while. Indulgences like these are all the more special when they're just occasional."
Many minimum-wage earners, like 38-year-old Greg Hubbard, said the increase—the first of its kind since 1997—provides a sense of security at a time when the price of gas, housing, consumer goods, food, utilities, and health insurance premiums are at their highest levels in decades.
"To think that only 10 years ago my salary was jacked up to $5.15 an hour, and now, in 2007, I'm making almost $6 an hour," said Hubbard, who runs the sluicer at the Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in Corydon, IN. "Only in America."
In Utica, NY, hotel maid Ernestine Caldwell has constantly worried about her husband's medical expenses since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease earlier this year and forced to quit his job. But now that she'll be earning nearly $12,000 a year, Caldwell, 62, said she'll be able to pay off 1/64th of his medical expenses and finally start planning for her retirement by investing in higher-yield scratch-ticket games offered by the New York Lottery.
"For years, I've had to play 'Loose Change' or 'Straight 8's' while the $20 'Win for Life Spectacular' game has been out of reach," Caldwell said. "With this added income, though, I'll really be able to take advantage of all 15 ways to win. My husband deserves the best possible care."
Congressional Democrats who pushed for the increase said the additional $28 a week will come as a "godsend" to those living below the poverty line and provide new lines of tax revenue that could perhaps one day help pay off the resurgent federal deficit.
"Today, the nation's working poor are 70 cents closer to the American dream," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a Capitol press conference. "And don't forget the economic stimulus this wage increase will provide— already we hear that discount stores nationwide are selling out their stocks of flip-flops and the stiffer kind of paper plates."
Yet Pelosi urged minimum-wage earners to be cautious in spending their windfall, as a raise of this magnitude only comes "once in a lifetime."