Right now, the city of Berkeley is considering an increase in its minimum wage. A higher minimum wage would help thousands of residents afford the city’s high costs of basic living necessities, like food and rent. It would also give our university’s students a fighting chance to pay for college.
I am fortunate enough not to be in a situation where I need to depend on a minimum-wage job to support myself during school. But as a Cal student and a former restaurant worker, I know how difficult it is to maintain such a job while taking a full course load. Living on those wages while paying for tuition would be nearly impossible. Unfortunately, for many of my classmates, surviving on low-wage jobs is a reality.
A lot of people don’t realize that putting yourself through college is much more difficult now than it was 20 years ago. Today, tuition prices are higher than ever, and students are struggling to survive on a severely outdated minimum wage.
A couple decades ago, the total amount of fees due for the 1994-95 academic year at UC Berkeley was $4,346.50 for an in-state student, as reported in the fee schedule archive on UC Berkeley’s Office of the Registrar website. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI inflation calculator, that amount of money has the same buying power as $6,848.35 in 2013. That’s half of the $12,864 an in-state UC Berkeley student is going to have to pay this year. This hefty price tag doesn’t even include textbooks or housing.
In 1994, California’s minimum wage was $4.25 an hour, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations website. That would be would be worth $6.70 today, as measured by the CPI inflation calculator. If the 1994 minimum wage worth $6.70 doubled in constant dollars like UC Berkeley’s tuition costs, students today would be paid more than $12 an hour. It’s absurd that the minimum wage has only increased from what would be worth $6.70 today to just $8 — or $1.30 in constant dollars over the last two decades.
In an ideal world, a full-time student would be able to work 25 hours a week, every week, earning $10,400 for the entire year. However, a more realistic picture would take into consideration all of a student’s responsibilities outside of class: doing homework, studying for midterms and finals, writing research papers and participating in extracurricular activities and internships. These overwhelming priorities are vital for a successful career after graduation, but they often make sleeping, eating and sometimes even maintaining personal hygiene difficult to attain for most college kids.
Furthermore, anyone who has ever worked a minimum-wage job knows it isn’t easy, especially in a restaurant. Contrary to popular belief, this type of job can be incredibly fast-paced, intense and exhausting. Customers don’t often realize that their server has been running around like crazy, constantly rushing to get the next order out for the last five hours. They don’t know their server’s friendly smile could be masking the aching of tired feet as well as anxiety about an upcoming midterm.
That smile is bright and cheerful because getting decent tips could mean the ability to afford groceries that week. Still, there’s never any real certainty or stability in tips, especially for servers at casual restaurants. Tipped workers depend on the noncompulsory generosity of strangers, which can vary greatly among restaurants. At least tipped workers in California can rely on the guarantee of the minimum wage; tipped workers in some other states are paid as little as $2.13 an hour.
However, here in Berkeley, we have an opportunity to do better. Adding a couple of dollars to the minimum wage isn’t a lofty or outrageous goal; it is a small but vital change that would better the lives of our poorest workers.
Raising the minimum wage for everyone isn’t an attempt to run beloved local businesses out of town either. A higher minimum wage would increase the spending power of tens of thousands of people, including Berkeley’s students — one of the city’s largest consumer demographics. It’s a hard fact that operating costs are getting higher and harder for business owners to maintain. But that also means rent and food costs are increasing for their employees as well.
Our college students and minimum-wage workers need higher wages, especially here in Berkeley. We desperately need a higher city minimum wage for everybody, including tipped workers. The cost of living in Berkeley is much higher than it is in the rest of California. It is far too much to ask of anyone to survive on $8 an hour. It’s completely unrealistic to expect a stagnant wage to adequately provide for the constantly rising costs of going to college and living a decent life.
Shannon Lin is a second year student at UC Berkeley.
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