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One NYC family’s struggle to survive on a fast food salary

November 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Between food, housing and baby supplies, Shenita Simon struggles each week to support her family of seven. The 25-year-old from New York makes $8 per hour and is one of the fast food workers nationwide advocating for higher wages. Hari Sreenivasan brings us Shenita's story of surviving on a near-minimum wage salary.

GWEN IFILL: High unemployment has been one of the nation’s most vexing problems since the recession. But, increasingly, there are also mounting concerns about what constitutes a good job and a fair wage in an era of rising inequality. It’s a story that won’t go away.

Tonight, Hari Sreenivasan reports on a fast-food worker trying to make a living in New York City.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Twenty-five-year-old Shenita Simon has worked at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Brooklyn, New York, for two years. She’s a full-time shift supervisor, helping manage other workers and filling in wherever she’s needed, from being a cashier to running the fryer.

Do you get benefits?

SHENITA SIMON, resident of New York City: No. No vacation, no benefits, no sick days, no personal days. That’s luxury. That’s unheard of now. No.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And all this for how much an hour?

SHENITA SIMON: I currently get paid $8 an hour.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After taxes, that wage translates into about $270 a week in take-home pay, and with that, she is supporting a household of seven.

There’s seven people in your house?

SHENITA SIMON: Seven people in my household, my mom, my brother, my husband, and my three kids. I’m the breadwinner currently in my home. My husband recently got laid off. So, you know, we have to foot the bill. And I have to hold my head up high and move on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Over the past several months, activists and some fast-food workers, including Shenita, have been organizing for higher wages. They point out that, like Shenita, almost 40 percent of all fast-food workers are 25 or older, and more than 25 percent are raising children.

It’s not just teenagers flipping burgers part-time. But the industry argues that only 5 percent of restaurant workers actually earn minimum wage, $7.25 in most states. In New York and around the country, there have been daylong strikes to push for a $15-an-hour wage for fast-food workers.

LETITIA JAMES, New York City Council: If you recognize that the fastest growing industries in this city are fast-food workers, fast-food restaurants, and it’s a race to the bottom, make some noise.


HARI SREENIVASAN: On her near-minimum-wage salary, Shenita is one of more than 10 million Americans working and living below the poverty line, which is around $35,000 a year for a family of seven.

To better understand how people like her get by, we asked Shenita to track her expenses over the course of a week to get a sense of what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck on a fast-food wage. Shenita gets paid on Mondays. And after depositing her check, $269.88 this week, she immediately takes out $100 to pay back money she owes from the week before.

She’s then off to the grocery store. Food takes up the biggest chunk of her budget. On this trip, she spent $53.57.

SHENITA SIMON: So that’s for dinner, mac and cheese and chicken.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In addition to five boxes of macaroni and cheese, Shenita buys three bags of 99-cent-per-pound chicken that she cleans, skins and cooks for her family. Each bag runs about $5.

SHENITA SIMON: My daughter’s milk, $6.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s one of the most expensive items on her receipt, lactose-free milk, a necessity for her 5-year-old daughter, Kyra, who is allergic to milk, nuts, wheat, and egg.

SHENITA SIMON: One hundred and four is larger than 0-1-4.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Both Kyra and Shenita’s older daughter, 9-year-old Kayla, get breakfast and lunch at school, which fills a big gap for Shenita.

SHENITA SIMON: They get three meals a day. And only how my children get three meals a day is because their school provides two meals out of those three meals.

If I was to survive off three meals a day for my children, we wouldn’t make it. We would be homeless. We would be starving, one or the other.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While Shenita is at work, her husband, Jude, gets Kyra and Kayla to and from school and takes care of Sarah, their eight-month-old daughter. The family receives about $200 a month from the federally funded Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program for some of Sara’s basic necessities, like baby food.

Shenita told us, years ago, she used to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, but at some point lost the benefit. The week we followed her, she decided to try and apply again. On one of her two days off, Shenita and her husband came here, a local New York City social service office to apply for food stamps.

SHENITA SIMON: My day off is never actually a day off.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She waits five hours to apply, because every dollar helps.

SHENITA SIMON: Anything they give, it definitely will stretch a long way, if I have to use coupons and stretch and do what I have to do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Fifty-two percent of front-line fast-food workers rely on some sort of public assistance, including food stamps, Medicaid or the Earned Income Tax Credit. That’s according to a new report from researcher at the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center. In total, they calculate these benefits cost taxpayers nearly $7 billion a year.

It will be 30 to 45 days before Shenita knows if she qualifies for food stamps. But she already depends on other public aid to get by. While she and her husband are currently without health care coverage, her children are all on Medicaid. And the family lives in a heavily subsidized four-bedroom public housing apartment. Shenita has to pony up only $200 a month, but the week we followed her, she wasn’t able to put any rent money aside.

Is it hard having seven people under one roof?

SHENITA SIMON: It’s very hard. It’s — on a day-to-day basis, sometimes, you step on each other toes, and, you know, but as a family, we learn to unite and we learn how to struggle together, because at the end of the day, this is about these three children. We don’t let them experience poverty. We don’t let them see. “Mommy, can I go on my field trip? Mommy, can I — you know, can we celebrate Halloween?”

HARI SREENIVASAN: You said that you wanted to keep your children from witnesses poverty, but you live in a really tough neighborhood.


HARI SREENIVASAN: The Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, where Shenita and her family live, has one of the highest violent crime rates in all of New York City.

SHENITA SIMON: We don’t do anything in this neighborhood but buy what we need and come home. If we have to go somewhere very important, we make sure everything, everything, absolutely everything is in walking distance, because we can’t afford transportation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Shenita did spend $20 on public transportation the week we were with her. But she’s also forced to sometimes take taxis.

For example, after applying for food stamps took so much time, Shenita and Jude had to hop in a cab in order to not be late pick up Kayla and Kyra at school. But the family does a lot of walking, including the almost mile-and-a-half to and from school. Shenita says the daily round-trip bus fare would be too expensive.

SHENITA SIMON: My kids is in one of the best schools in Brooklyn. And we have to sacrifice transportation, walking 45 minutes a day to make sure they are in the best schools, because we can’t afford, you know, for them to be, you know, just getting by, you know, in school. I got by in school. And, I mean, I’m in fast-food. I’m in one of the — quote, unquote — “low-wages jobs.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: After spending $45.35 on toiletries for the house and an estimated $40 on baby supplies, including wipes and diapers, Shenita’s bank account is down to $3.26 by the time the following Monday rolls around.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there something that people in the rest of the country are missing when they say, you know what, I would be happy to take an $8-an-hour job? Times are tight. People would be willing to work for anything.

SHENITA SIMON: I would say to them, it’s easy looking from outside in and saying, oh, yes, with that money, I will be able to build mountains. But let me see you survive. I want to see anyone. I challenge you, do it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s a challenge Shenita Simon overcomes week after week

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow, Paul Solman continues our look at income inequality with a story about efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in SeaTac, a small city South of Seattle that includes the international airport. That’s one of several critical ballot initiatives facing voters as they head to the polls tomorrow.