Making It On Minimum Wage

Joanna Cruz, a New Jersey mother of three who works as a cook at a convenience store, wrote in an online essay that "too often, people think that individuals on public assistance programs are lazy. I would like for them to spend one day in my shoes." She shares what it's like to support a family on minimum wage with guest host Wade Goodwyn.

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WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn. Tomorrow is Labor Day, the day we celebrate our workers by giving them some time off, but there isn't a lot of celebrating among American workers these days. Recent numbers show that the country's growth rate is still far too low to recover the ground lost during the recent recession. This week, an Oxfam America poll found that 61 percent of new jobs are in low-paying industries, and that one in four Americans works for less than $10 an hour.

JOANNA CRUZ: I work at One Stop Deli in Penns Grove, New Jersey.

GOODWYN: Joanna Cruz is a working mother of three trying to support her family on very little.

CRUZ: Seven thirty-five an hour.

GOODWYN: And is that minimum?

CRUZ: Yes, sir.

GOODWYN: Until recently, Joanna was getting help from the government to supplement her income, but no longer.

CRUZ: My benefits were cut off as of May because I didn't turn in a reinstatement form. And being as though I don't have my son's Social Security card. I haven't yet had the chance to go get it, I'm at work all the time all week long - they refused to turn it back on until I get the proper paperwork.

GOODWYN: What hours do you work?

CRUZ: I work 10 at night to 6 A.M., sometimes 10 at night to 10 in the morning, depending on if I can pick up some overtime hours.

GOODWYN: And you have children.

CRUZ: I have three children. My daughter just turned 12. I have a daughter that's seven and then my son is three. He'll be four in February.

GOODWYN: So, how do you make hat work when they have to be up in the morning and getting to school and you're either ending your work day or not yet ending your work day?

CRUZ: Fortunately, I live with my mom. I don't really have much of a choice. I can't afford to move on my own but I can't afford not to work either. My best option is to live with my mom, have her help me for the most part, take care of my kids, get them off to school, get them to bed, dinner while I'm sleep, make sure they - fed during the day. And this is how we manage our days.

GOODWYN: You try to work 40 hours a week. Is the money you're making enough to keep the family's head above water.

CRUZ: No, no, no, no, no. Not at all. My food stamps are cut off and I give my mom money towards, to make sure bills and things are paid. I'm left with maybe $60, $65, $70, if I'm lucky, a week to buy food for me and the kids.

GOODWYN: Have you been hungry on a regular basis?

CRUZ: Honestly, I do not eat during the day when I'm home at all so my kids can eat. There have been times where, when my girls were younger, I had to put them to bed early because if you're sleep you're not hungry. It's a way of kind of not dealing with the issue. So, yeah, I know what hunger is.

GOODWYN: I can hear the emotion in your voice. Is this hard for you to talk to or something that you want to talk about?

CRUZ: I want to talk about it in a sense because people need to know that hunger and poverty is definitely realistic. And if my story is going to help someone else than I am so willing to tell it. But at the same time, this is not something that I talk about every day. This is something that me as a mother, I deal with. I just kind of take it day by day and hope that today there's enough food to last from morning till night and that, you know, by bedtime nobody's saying that they're hungry and that in the morning they'll sleep in a little late so it'll push breakfast back a little longer and we have less meals to deal with during the day. But just last night my son is like, mom, I want pizza. And I'm like, well, we don't have pizza. And he's like, well, please, mom? And I'm like, baby, I'll try to get it for you when I get paid. That was the only response that I can give him at that time.

GOODWYN: Do you have prospects of getting a raise? I mean, what have they told you?

CRUZ: Nothing, really. As I was told, people who are making 40- or 30-plus hours, they have to be offered benefit packages. People don't want to offer benefit packages anymore, so who knows what's going to happen with my job?

GOODWYN: How much would it mean to you if they did offer you a benefit package?

CRUZ: The world. My son, he has a world of health issues - asthma, acid reflux, allergies. He has problems sleeping at night and I can't do anything about it. His asthma medicine just ran out. He starts coughing; there's nothing that I can do. So, the benefits will do me so great. I will be so appreciative for them right now.

GOODWYN: Are you hopeful about the future or are you feeling discouraged?

CRUZ: I always feel like today is going to be the day that it's going to be better than yesterday. And if it's not, then tomorrow I'm just going to make it better. And that's the attitude that I always had.

GOODWYN: And how is your children's morale? I mean, obviously, if they're asking for pizza and you say you're going to have to wait until I get paid, they know the money situation in the family.

CRUZ: My oldest daughter, she, unfortunately, when she was younger, things were at the hardest. So, now she's very appreciative of whatever we have. She doesn't ask for much more. She understands if we don't have we just don't have it and mommy tries her best. My son, being as though he's only three, he doesn't get it right now. All he knows is the word no. He doesn't understand why. He just knows that mommy said no.

GOODWYN: What's next for you? Kind of keep on keeping on? Do you have any longer-term plans?

CRUZ: I do have long-term goals. I kind of don't like talking about my long-term goals 'cause I feel like if they don't pan out the way that I want them to then I kind of make myself look like a fool. But I do have my ducks in a row. I do know what step I have to take after another to get to where I might possibly want to be. And I also have a backup plan. Hey, if that doesn't work then I'll try something else.

GOODWYN: Joanna Cruz joined us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Joanna, I really appreciate you being so honest with us and giving America a little look inside your life.

CRUZ: Well, thanks for having me. I don't mind telling my story to help someone else.

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