Living Wage and How It Compares to the Minimum Wage

How Much Do You Need to Live in America?

Two women realizing they don't make a living wage.
••• Photo: Jan Mammey/Getty Images

The living wage is the amount of income needed to provide a decent standard of living. It should pay for the cost of living in any location. It should also be adjusted to compensate for inflation.

The purpose of a living wage is to make sure that all full-time workers have enough money to live above the federal poverty level.

A living wage isn't enough to improve one's quality of life or protect against emergencies. For example, workers won't earn enough to eat at restaurants, save for a rainy day, or pay for education loans. It doesn't include medical, auto, or renters/homeowners insurance. In other words, it's enough to keep you out of a homeless shelter, but you'd still have to live paycheck-to-paycheck. If you can't afford insurance, and you get sick, you could still wind up homeless.

Living Wage Calculators

A living wage calculator shows the hourly rate needed to pay for typical basic costs in a given location. These costs are food, health care, rent, transportation, child care, and taxes. The cost estimates are taken from government and non-profit surveys of such costs.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides the well-known Living Wage Calculator. The Institute developed it in 2004 and update it in the first quarter of each year. The calculator shows costs for each of the 50 states and the living wage needed to pay those basic costs. It compares this to the minimum wage and the poverty wage. It also shows which occupations in the area pay less than the living wage. 

The Economic Policy Institute designed a Living Wage Calculator (last updated in March 2018) targeted toward a family with children. It also used federal data for the major metropolitan areas.

Living Wage Versus Minimum Wage

The living wage is often confused with the national minimum wage. In fact, the terms are often used interchangeably. The U.S. Congress originally created the minimum wage with the intent to provide a living wage. But the minimum wage is an amount set by law, whereas the living wage is determined by costs. The amount needed to provide a living wage depends on what is included in the calculation. The amount set by lawmakers for the minimum wage must take into account the needs of businesses as well as workers. They must also consider the overall impact on the economy.

The minimum wage was set to allow workers enough income to stay out of poverty. It has failed in its duty because it hasn't kept pace with the true cost of living. If it had been indexed to the consumer price index over the last 40 years, the minimum wage would now be $10.41. If it had kept pace with executive level pay increases, it would be $23/hour. Many people want the minimum wage raised.

Living Wage Campaign

The goal of the living wage campaign is to make sure the minimum wage is equivalent to the true cost of living. The campaign is often waged at state and local levels, as well as at the national level. Some campaigns focus on paying a higher-than-minimum wage to those who receive local government contracts. Others try to address raising the minimum wage for all employees in the state.

The living wage campaign is a popular cause among voters. Sixty percent of Americans have, at one time in their lives, been paid the minimum wage and know what it feels like. Support has grown as income inequality in the United States has increased. Although most people are opposed to handouts, such as unemployment benefits, to those who don't work, they like to see hard workers be rewarded.

There are several living wage campaigns:

  • Raise the Minimum Wage: Works with the National Employment Law Project to coordinate living wage campaigns across the country.
  • ACORN: This now-defunct group successfully raised the minimum wage in many cities across the country in the late 1990s. At its peak, it had 400,000 member families belonging to 1,200 neighborhood chapters in 75 U.S. cities.
  • The Universal Living Wage Campaign: This group seeks to tie increases in the minimum wage to the cost of housing. Its goal wants no one to pay more than 30 percent of income for housing. Thirty percent is the federally recommended limit.

Living Wage Versus Poverty Level

In 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services set the federal poverty level at $24,600 for a family of four. That's equivalent to $11.83 per hour for a full-time worker. A worker making the minimum wage of $7.20 per hour would be below the poverty level. Both parents would need to work minimum wage jobs to stay above the poverty level.

On the other hand, a single person must earn $12,140 a year, or $5.83 an hour, to be above the poverty level. For that person, the minimum wage would be adequate.

Living Wage Compared to the Minimum Wage and Poverty Level

Even those making the minimum wage and living above the poverty level aren't making a living wage. For example, the cheapest city in the country is McAllen, Texas. The MIT living wage calculator says that a single person must earn $10.31 an hour to afford to live there. That covers the average housing, medical, food, and transportation costs. If the national minimum wage isn't a living wage in even the cheapest city in the country, it's not a living wage anywhere.

On the other hand, the most expensive U.S. city is Manhattan, New York. MIT's calculator estimates the living wage to be $16.14 an hour for a single adult. The calculator assumes housing costs of $16,224 a year. It would be difficult to find an apartment in Manhattan for $1,352 a month. Even at a living wage, you'd need roommates.

Mandating a national living wage would be complicated to implement. The cost of living varies from city to city and region to region. Many cities and states have indexed their minimum wages to inflation, which compensates for any rises in the cost of living. If the government were to try and institute a living wage for everyone, it would require meticulous planning and regulation. It would need to vary by region and by family size.

When the government gets that detailed, the whole system becomes a command economy, where all economic decisions are made by a central government. This restricts the natural dynamics of the free market economy and leads to unanticipated negative results.

There would be a similar problem in instituting a universal basic income. It is a government guarantee that everyone receives a minimum income. The concept has gained popularity as a way to offset job losses caused by technological advancements.

The government has a legitimate role in setting a minimum wage. Congress should increase the minimum wage to $10.41 an hour to make sure it keeps up with inflation. But it shouldn't make sure that the minimum wage is equivalent to the living wage in each town and city.