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Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days – Living on Minimum Wage

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If you caught the premier episode of Morgan Spurlock’s, of Super Size Me fame (you can check out his blog here), 30 days on the FX Channel then you saw the plight of your average, minimum-wage, hard-working but barely scrape by Joe Schmoe. The episode was amazing as it happened to hit upon a lot of the major issues minimum wage earners tackle: keeping up with rent, dealing with health issues without insurance, among other issues. It was shown at 10pm but then had an encore presentation at 11pm. I don’t know if it’ll be shown again but it’s a show you definitely should find time to watch.

The story begins with Morgan and his girlfriend locking up all of their savings, credit cards, etc. in a lockbox and starting the 30 days with only one week of minimum wage ($5.15/hr) savings, it amounted to something like under $150 each. With that, they moved to Columbus, Ohio because it represented mainstream America to him. I didn’t know this but Ohio has 4 of the 25 poorest cities in all of America (how they calculate that, I’m not sure).

Renting An Apartment
Since most places required proof of employment, Morgan was forced to look in shadier parts of town. They settled on a $325 a month renovated crack den (literally) that allowed them to pay the deposit over a few months. With only $300 in savings, this was their best option. Their thermostat had two settings: On and Off.

Getting a Job
He started by getting a job through a temp agency at $7 and then moved into construction, which paid better. Now, it’s better than the bare minimum but not much. She snatched up a dishwashing job, which I think was under the table. The downside of construction was that he then hurt his wrist and had to decide between health care and food.

Health Problems
Here is when things get interesting… Morgan hurt his wrist but kept working, making it worse, and avoided going to the emergency room because of the cost. He tried the free clinic but it only took twenty people and he was number thirty five. Then, the next day, his girlfriend had a urinary tract infection that required a 6am trip to the ER, $20 in antibiotics from CVS across town, and then a day or two of not working. They didn’t have insurance. Later on, Morgan had to make a trip to the ER where he basically got a $40 ACE bandage. The total bill for both trips amounted to like a thousand bucks – or three months worth of salary.

Children
One of Morgan’s coworkers had FOUR kids, whereas he had none, and he was supporting them on the same minimum wage. So he borrowed some kids from relatives! They went to like the dollar store in order to get them gifts and a box of candy each… and they fought a little about it.

Public Transportation
In the beginning, they bought one bus pass and tried to use public transportation whenever possible. Sometimes the bus times would change on them or a line would be shut down for the night and they were screwed. They had to get a taxi and spend $15 of their hard earned money to get home.

Handling Bad Luck
The episode really just shows that when you’re barely scraping by (and I don’t mean Michael Jackson style where you’re spending a couple million more than what you’re taking in, I mean really barely scraping by), it’s very very hard to handle bad luck. Having the bus flake out on you costs $15 and having an injury or illness costs you far more – it’s those bad luck scenarios that dig folks in a deeper and deeper hole if everything else is going right.

At the end of thirty days…
They were $1000 in debt but at least they still had electricity, water, and a roof over their heads… right?

Takeaways:
Working minimum wage is very very hard. It’s very hard to make ends meet and I think a lot of people take it for granted the things they have. It’s hard trying to support children making only $50 a day. If you have health insurance and you don’t have to decide between food and getting your wrist checked out, thank your lucky stars… I know I do.

Also, the episode really showed you how critical health insurance is and how perhaps countries that have universal health care probably are doing things right. Sure, if you have a good job with benefits, you don’t want to pay a little extra in taxes to fund universal health care… but what about the millions of Americans without health care? What if you just paid a few more percentage points of wages to ensure everyone had health care coverage? I think I’d be willing to chip in more so we don’t have people having to make these kinds of decisions.

Finally, the best part about this show was that it dispels a lot of misconceptions people have (called the fundamental attribution error). Some folks have the misconception that people who can only work minimum wage jobs are uneducated, inarticulate, drug-using lowlifes who couldn’t do any better. Well, Spurlock and his girlfriend are educated, articulate, drug-free vegans who just couldn’t do any better.

Did you catch the show? What did you think of it?

{ 46 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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46 Responses to “Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days – Living on Minimum Wage”

  1. Flexo says:

    Argh, I missed it. It is a time like this that I wish I had TiVo. It sounds like it was a great episode.

  2. jim says:

    Yeah, it was eye-opening… for the first time in my life, I seriously considered universal healthcare as something we should probably implement in the US and I’d gladly take a few bucks out of my pocket to do it.

    Now, I wasn’t totally against it before I saw the show, it was one of those “just didn’t think about it” type of issues.

  3. risk says:

    in a seminar I went to last year, one colleauge mentioned a lady who did a similar thing years ago (for much longer period), wrote a book about her experience. Basically, life is really tough for a working class (about over min. wages) for survival. Very sad, but being able to moving up from one’s current class is a lot harder than we thought.

  4. jim says:

    Yeah, that woman was is Barbara Ehrenreich and she wrote Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, published back in May of 2002. It’s only ten bucks, I might pick it up or see if my local library has a copy, the editorial review on Amazon is pretty in depth and makes it sound like the book is really interesting. I think I might have heard about it before becasue the name sounds familiar (and Ehrenreich isn’t a name that sticks in your mind easily!).

  5. Michael says:

    If you enjoy this sort of economic experiment, you’ll enjoy Ehrenereich’s book. I’d recommend it strongly.

  6. Jason Ellis says:

    Saw the show, and really loved it. I didn’t think that he could realistically show what it was like, as he was only doing it for 30 days, so how hard would it be to live any lifestyle for 30 days and not be too affected. Sort of like the idea I once had about living homeless for 3 months. I would never really lose hope, as I would always know that there is an end, and I would eventually not be homeless anymore.

    That being said, I think he did a good job of creating an environment where he felt that he was really living the lifestyle.

    Also, a couple of comments you made I think are inaccurate.

    1. I don’t think that the 4 cities in Ohio are 4 of the 25 poorest. I think the 4 cities in Ohio are on the list of 25 cities that lost the most jobs, or something like that.

    2. I don’t think his girlfriend’s job was under the table. Nothing in the show said that, and she was paid after a week or two, just like a normal job. Most under the table jobs are paid daily.

    Anyway, good post. I think it is important to keep this issue on the table.

    Jason Ellis

  7. david says:

    I missed the first showing but have the DVR set to record it on Sunday. I was in the military for 6 years, when I got out I went to work for a contractor at various power plants in the Northeast.

    I did not like traveling, so I decided to move to Florida. I had no job and just a $1000 or so in savings. I got a job working as a parts counter guy at an auto repair shop, my takehome was $308/week. This was in 1995. It was a struggle, I would babysit for a Navy friend for $20, those weeks were great, I could buy groceries, more than tuna and ramin noodles. Some Saturdays I would make about $30 parking cars at the Citrus Bowl.

    In anycase, I spent my Sundays going thru the want ads and sending out resumes. I left that job after about 4 months to go to work as a plumbing dispatcher at a sevice company, it was a $20 pay increase, I then made $328/week. I spent a month there then went to work for Minute Maid for a $6000/year increase. Hear I am ten years later, and a few more jobs, but I am making about $55k a year.

    My point is that if you keep looking you can move up, I used the GI bill to go to Vo-Tech to bulk up my skills so I could make myself more marketable. I don’t want to stereotype, but I think that there are many minimum wage earners who do things such as drinking too much, even having kids before they can afford it. I have worked at places where we had temporary workers and they wanted to hire them full time (and they would get health benefits) but they could not lay off of the doobies long enough to pass the piss test.

    Anyway just my $.02

    • Judi says:

      You are so correct! I would also add not to have children, until middle 30′s and early 40′s formen. Use that free time to marry and get to know each other and save. Use that time for education, travel and helping others. I know it works, because I did it. I started making .65 per hour in 1959 and ended up earning over 60K per year n 2001. I stayed with my last employer for almost 40 years.
      I always worked overtime and extra jobs and took college courses, and finished my degree in 2006 at age 64. I now work as a teacher assistant, with a pension and social security.I spend most of the TA salary heping my students and families in need, without them knowing I was the one.
      Boric Acid Powder wouldhave got rid of the ants etc. in their apartment, and they should have worked two jobs, since they did not have children. The Free Store and The Soup Kitchen was just a blessing from God. The money he spent on his brother’s kids was nonsense. http://www.daveramsey.com is a Debt Czar, and if they had follwed his plan, they would have been better off. Never go to the Emergency room,unless it is a matter of life and death, for they charge the uninsured the most. Try to always have health insurance.
      God bless everyone and a kind and divine 2009.

    • Anonymous says:

      most young girls don’t decide to get pregnant. some girls parents don’t explain anything to them, keep them cooped up, and then send them off to college. they get knocked up by a sweet talking guy who is 10 years their senior and he is just trying to trap her.

  8. jim says:

    Jason,
    You may be right, my memory might have failed me a little on both accounts. For some reason I remember the statistics 4 cities of the worst 25 in the US and found it hard to believe they were the poorest. As for the under the table, I may have stepped out for a minute and come back and and saw they were being paid in cash and assumed it was under the table. I don’t remember it being mentioned but for some reason I may have thought it.

    David,
    It’s a pleasure to read your story and I’m glad to hear your hard work and perserverence paid off. It’s a wide spectrum where you have those on the very positive side, such as yourself, and those on the opposite side, who you’ve dealt with on a day to day basis, and I believe a lot of non-minimum wage earners just lump everyone in with the negative end. Thanks for your insightful comments.

  9. Jonathan says:

    Yes! I totally saw this late Friday night while channel surfing. I was going to post about it but didn’t feel I had anything good to say.

    My comments – ER bills are egregious, yes. However, most minimum wage workers simply don’t pay them. They can’t. And the hospitals pretty much doesn’t plan on getting the money back. Guess who ends up paying? The taxpayers! Simply denying people healthcare does not magically save us money. I totally back Universal Health Care. Many people don’t believe healthcare is a right. I do. If you want to pay more for something special, fine. But taxes pay for a lot of things more “frivolous” than healthcare.

    Otherwise, I owned Nickel and Dimed. Great book, I think even more thought provoking than this 30 day glimpse. But the basic premise is the same. It’s harder to climb out of poverty than to go from middle class to millionaire.

  10. MyMoneyBlog says:

    30 Days: Living on Minimum Wage on FX

    Jim over at Blueprint for Financial Prosperity wrote a great entry on the first episode of Morgan Spurlock’s (the Super Size Me guy) new show on FX, 30 Days. It focused on him and his fiancee living on minimum wage for 30 days and trying to get by. Ve…

  11. gg says:

    for a view that points out the various biases and ways that the minimum wage films was hyped up for political effect see econopundit’s blog

    A couple of quotes

    “First and foremost all those minimum wage jobs are scarcer than the producers apparently thought. All the easily-found jobs pay more than minimum wage. Spurlock signs on with a temp agency at $7/hr; his companion Jamieson dickers her wage down to minimum so as to not cheat the show’s premise.”

    “Second, the artifice of moving the action to Columbus Ohio — a city with which the Spurlock and Jamieson aren’t familiar — seems to mask a certain level of dishonesty. The purpose of the move, says the show’s script, is frankly political. Ohio’s voting patterns shifted the presidential election to Bush, and Ohio remains a swing state. How bad things are for the working poor in Ohio may, presumably, decide the next election. But this simplistic political background serves to misdirect the viewer’s attention. In real life arrival at a new city and finding a minimum wage job is unusual, typically a one-time event. This artificial situation all-too-conveniently gives the filmmakers plausible deniability of certain facts on the ground. Were their accidental discoveries (in fairly short order) of local charity-based food, furniture, and medical providers possibilities they anticipated but hoped they might avoid?”

    “And there are of course Spurlock’s varying medical issues. Many temp agencies provide health insurance — with, normally, some degree of worker participation and payroll deduction. Spurlock’s 39% temp agency payroll deduction can’t have been just basic social security, medicare, and so on. Was he getting health benefits with the temp agency job? Did he dump his $7/hr job because he knew the benefits would interfere with the predetermined story of health care and the working poor? ”

    “One can only conclude it interfered with the script’s political message so it was omitted, but the simple fact is even in his second, no-benefits job, Spurlock’s wrist injury was fully covered by his employer’s worker’s compensation policy.”

    And so on….

  12. jim says:

    GG, I do agree with the points made by econopundit’s post but ultimately Spurlock’s experience was designed to show hardship. While some of the things he did may seem “dishonest”, or at least questionably convenient, in his quest to show the minimum wage lifestyle, I do think it did a good job in showing a glimpse into that life that many of us never think about. Where there are many who struggle to survive, there are those like david who work hard and succeed.

    Creative liberties were taken, artificial rules were in place, discoveries were conveniently made, but I don’t think anything was manipulated as significantly as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and the creative editing used to show him walking into a bank and walking out with a rifle on the same day. Wouldn’t you agree?

    As for the political motivations, I don’t really know about that stuff and I would naive to assume there were no political motivations (there always are, that much I know) so I will leave that to the experts to debate.

  13. gg says:

    jim

    I agree that the mainipulation was not on the level of a Moore film. I just wanted to point out that the world as protrayed on the screen was not a complete reflection of reality since people were posting that it made them change their minds about health care. Changing one’s opinion is fine and dandy but if that change it made on the basis of manipulated facts….well, that is sad in my opinion.

    Nice blog BTW

    gg

  14. jim says:

    Thanks for the compliment gg,
    You are correct and your points are definitely important to keep in mind, something I didn’t even consider (and I’m sure a lot of people didn’t consider). Ultimately however, do you think that universal healthcare should be something we should have? While I believe the scene with the diabetic couple (or just the diabetic husband) where they said they couldn’t get treatment unless they went to the free clinic does underscore an issue: can lower income families without health insurance afford healthcare?

    One interesting thing I don’t remember being mentioned is welfare… did anyone catch something I missed? It seems like welfare could be something that could help these folks and wasn’t part of Spurlock’s experiment.

  15. Lauren says:

    While I do agree that it is important to understand the struggles of minimum wage work, I have to disagree with the premise that it is hard to find jobs that pay more than minimum wage. While my first job as a teenager did pay minimum wage, every job after that paid more, up to $10/hr as a teaching aide. This was without a degree, of course, since I was still in my teens at that point. These jobs did not include health benefits, but this was only because they were temporary. My fiance’s kid brother makes well over $10/hr waiting tables at a local restaurant. The jobs *are* out there. While it is difficult to make a substantial salary without a college education these days, a high school education is typically sufficient…not to mention free. It disturbs me that several of my middle-class younger cousins have decided not to take education seriously and will likely not graduate from high school. If they end up on minimum wage for the rest of their lives, is it really society’s fault?

    My concern about universal health care is its inefficiency. Is it very beneficial for everyone to have health care if you have to be on a year-long waiting list when you need surgery?

  16. jim says:

    I don’t know if that was a premise because Morgan’s “minimum wage job” was something that paid more than minimum wage, but I do agree with your thoughts.

    As for inefficiency, it would take some time for a good system to be in place but I think it would be an improvement over the current system. A year is shorter than never, right?

  17. John says:

    The show is dishonest from the beginning. It was staged to fail. 30 days is simply too short of a timespan to lift people who start from nothing. Were they supposed to end up millionaires? This is the same guy who ate a lot of fast food all day and became very unhealthy from it. Yet, others that tried the same thing, but with smaller portions, remained healthy. It was the amount of calorie intake, not the food that caused his health problems.

    It takes years of hard work to have a decent lifestyle. And there’s nothing wrong with that. To walk away from this show and preached that all people contribute to an universal health system is wrong.

    • Gia says:

      I live in Columbus. My husband said that they should rename this show to Let’s Show How Hard It Is. They never showed or investigated all of the programs that are available for low income people. They showed the free clinic but they never asked or showed that our hospitals have programs that forgive or discount low income patients. Not to mention, they automatically when to an ER when the girlfriend got sick which is what they think poor people do, instead of going to a doctor’s office which would cost less money. I think it would have said a lot more, if they tried applying for these programs and found that by working minimum wage they made too much money. However I suspect they would have been accepted to food pantries and many of our social programs. Also they didn’t even try to use coupons or discounts when they were shopping for food.

      Also, with at least 6 colleges and universities in the city and suburbs there are A LOT of fun free things to do here than ask for a tour of the city morgue. Again, that was there to show that spoiled New Yorkers need to spend tons of money to do even the simplest of things.

      One thing they did get right, is our bus service is terrible. The buses stop running after 5 pm and don’t cover the city at all.

  18. After having my techie job outsourced, I found it hard to support my family on even $20/Hour or a few times minimum wage. A halfway decent place to rent for a family is about 1K a month, then there are utilities, a little thing called FOOD, insurance, transportation, etc.

    I’m doing a bit better now, have learned to live with less, and how to get along. but still…have some compassion, guys.

  19. shan says:

    i spent 20 years raising my 2 children without health care, working 2 and 3 jobs at a time and missed my children growning up. i wish more people would take minimum wage seriously and do something about it. my daughter passed away due to an illness that could have been fixed if i had insurance. she was 6 years old. my son has heart disease that is congenital and i am forever guilt ridden becase i was so powerless due to the situation i was in. i am educated and strong but still i couldnt help my children no matter how hard i worked. i have great empathy for poor single working single mothers and try my best now to help them, funnything is, so does my now grown up son. it gave us great insight to the plight of minimum wage earners and we do not think of them as lesser people. this is a government issue and i believe the government creates this problem because they just do not care about anyone who doesnt have a million dollars.

  20. Judi says:

    Get as much education as you can and leave those babies in baby heaven. Even animals make nests for their new babies. Have a nest egg, insurance, marriage BEFORE Having babies. It is very expenive for two adults, so you know what a life you will have. Look around you. Learn from other’s mistakes. Be a giver..

    • Adam says:

      What about someone like me who had all of that and then his wife suddenly decided she didnt want to be with him anymore, abandoned him AND his son, taking everyhing he owned pretty much and then getting laid off from his job had to find a low paying job? Sometimes things happen to where people LOOSE things. Not everyone rushes into things. One minute you are on top, the next you are on the bottom. Do not put yourself on high and do not think yourself any better than the rest of us.

  21. Adam says:

    Two things :

    I work two jobs, both of which are not minimum wage but slightly more. I have a son. I am scraping to get by the way it is. I think the USA had outrageous costs on almost everything. Insurance would be awesome, as well as a CAP PRICE ON CAR INSURANCE. Some companies overcharge the hardest working people. Lower gas prices, etc. Making little money would not be a problem if the richest of us would not overcharge the poorest. That is how the richer get richer and the poorer get poorer.

    Second, I am a single father. Noone cares. I work hard to support my son and take care of him. His mother skipped out on us when he was 2 weeks old and we have not seen her since. I have no idea where to even begin if I were to search for her. At least women have a motherly instinct. I had to learn to cook, clean, etc so I could be a father AND a mother. People seem to cry when it comes to a single mother, but when they see a single father all the problems that a single mother would have seem to vanish in their eyes. Those same problems are there. There a couple things that men can handle better than women, but do not forget the vice versa of that. There are a lot of things that women can handle that men cant.

    I just see women at work play the “oh I am a single mother so I should get more hours / get to go home early / get some form of special treatment” card when I am a single father working two jobs and work twice as hard as them. I never ask for any kind of special treatment from work. I expect the same thing as everyone else.

    Bottom line, however : Universal health care would be awesome, but lower prices and government set LOWER prices of certain things would be just as helpful. If there were pricing stnadards, then the economy would be helped as well as hard working americans.

    I personally went from a rich lifstyle to a hard working lifestyle in the matter of a few days. Do NOT think for a moment that you cannot end up being one of the “poor” people. Start building your safety net and pushing for better ways for poorer people to live. Who knows? Maybe even find a solution for the richer people to live even better in the process, such as lower prices in the economy.

    • Anonymous says:

      To all the men going it alone: YOU GO, DUDE! This is just what we, as daddies, do. Period. It’s called: setting the bar, teaching by example, manning up, giving our kids better than we have, or had. I’ve been there, and believe me, I do know! Yeah, it’s major tough on minimum wage, but stress the positive, the love, make the very best of your time together(don’t bash the ex, the kids’ll figure it out soon enough; mine did!) Make the time you spend with your kids good. It ain’t about money; your kids just care that you give them your time! Also, Mr. Spurlock and his girl were working from the perspective of people who’d been thrown into the situation as many,many of us have; with NO advance warning on How to get by! Cut him some slack! I’ll bet no one was born with the knowledge on how to survive; it’s a learning process! My hat’s off to him! Great investigative work!

  22. Anonymous says:

    i though it was very interesting and educanting show.I learned a lot from it, and it shure changed my mind for a number of children i was planing to have.

  23. broke joke says:

    This is bull shit!!! Come on… at 325 for rent and 2 people working, he’s got it easy!!! at 7 per hr, that should be about 45-50 a day each, 20 days a month for 2 people, that’s about 2,000 month!!! Try living in the bay area California, rent is about 1,000 a month for a 1 bedroom! I curently live off of about 150-200 for food each month!!! they should have at least 200-400 a month left over even in a pricey area! They made it look harder then it is! Not to say it’s easy… IT’S NOT!!! But grow a pair of balls and do what you got to do! This guy bitches about a wrist pain and goes to the E.R.! grow a pair and work like a man! I’m only 23 and I know what it means to work for your money… believe that! I eat potatoes, chicken, onions, and rice… that’s how you live cheap. Not the best diet, but you do what you have to! SURVIVAL!!! How are you gonna make it?

    Morgan Spurlock is a bitch!!!

  24. Kat says:

    Going to the ER at 6am for a UTI is ridiculous. Wait until morning and grab yourself a jug of 100% Cranberry juice (not cocktail) and a $10 pack of Uristat. Bam $15 bucks and you save several hundred dollars by avoiding the ER.

    By the way, I DO NOT back Universal Health Care. It’s one more step towards socialism. And I don’t want to be put on a waiting list when all the hypochondriacs start coming out of the woodwork thinking they have every illness known to man and MUST be treated for it. I would rather buy my way in.

  25. urge says:

    It is an eye opening story. very articulated, and I liked it. I wiould say it changed my life


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