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A Minimum Life Surviving At The Lowest Wage Level Is A Constant Struggle For More Than 2.5 Million Americans

Sandra Easter has landed on her feet, for now, at the Goodwill used clothes store near where the Norfolk Southern freight trains barrel over the shiny mudpacked shallows of the Appomattox River.

Her minimum-wage job brings home hamburger instead of the roast she’d sometimes buy when she worked at the garment factory that closed last year. But she says it keeps her and her daughter, age 3, off the street.

“You don’t go out to eat,” the single mother says of the drop to $4.25 hourly from almost $7. “You don’t run around. You just slim down. But I’m thankful for what I have.”

Easter is among the more than 2.5 million Americans who will have a little more if President Clinton gets his way. Clinton is likely to propose raising the $4.25 federal minimum, perhaps to $5, staged over several years.

But opposition is strong and the effort Clinton is prepared to put into fighting for it is uncertain. Critics say pumped-up wages cost jobs.

The minimum wage does not lift a family out of poverty as it once did. It brings in $8,840 a year for full-time work, leaving a family of three more than 25 percent below the poverty line.

America’s minimum wage workers tend to be young. More than a third are teens, making their first regular bucks. Three in five are women, among them 192,000 single mothers or wives bringing home the family’s main or only wage.

“Boy, a 16-year-old boy can eat,” Linda Satterwhite said wearily at the end of a long night.

With her teenage son but no husband at home, she drives a school bus, sells T-shirts at a Lynchburg mall and does odd jobs, from cutting grass to cleaning homes.

“Getting by? Yeah, that’s about it.”

More than one in four of America’s minimum wage jobs is in food service, the largest category, followed by sales and labor. Two-thirds are parttime.

More than 8 percent of Hispanic women in the hourly work force make the minimum. Then, in declining order, come Hispanic men, black women, white women, black men and white men.

The South and Midwest employ almost seven in 10 of those working at the federal minimum wage. The District of Columbia and nine states - Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington - have higher minimums that generally supersede the federal rate.

“Sometimes we buy (new) clothes, sometimes secondhand clothes,” said Guadalupe Lechuga, 56. He has worked the fields since he was a child, makes $4.25 an hour when there’s work and, with his wife, has raised six children.Use of the minimum varies widely not only region to region but county to county.

In Virginia’s Fairfax County, a Washington suburb, the state job bank showed only one job starting at $4.25 out of 124 positions needing no experience.

But in rural Farmville, $4.25 lands a job as sales clerk at the general store, part-time bus driving, and a variety of fast-food and retail positions.

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