Minimum Wage: Episode 1

Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) never met a gimmick he didn’t like, only this time he’s devoting one hour each week to a new indulgence that threatens not only bodily harm, but emotional and financial stability as well. In the debut episode — “Minimum Wage” — Morgan and his fiancé attempt to survive one month on an unlivable wage, which, as he reminds us several times, has remained stagnant since 1997. They have some conditions that they have set for themselves: (1) both must work minimum wage jobs, (2) they are allowed to start with $206 (3) all credit cards and bank accounts must be frozen. apiece (one week’s wages before taxes), and c They decide to conduct this experiment in Columbus, Ohio (which has lost thousands of jobs in the past four years, yet the state still supposedly went Republican in 2004), and the first task involves finding an apartment that won’t break the already sparse bank. On its face, it sounds a bit elitist and arrogant to slum for a few weeks knowing full well that they can return to semi-paradise after their little game has wrapped up, (the same charges were leveled at Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed), but Spurlock has managed to find a way to highlight a social problem without self-righteousness. Michael Moore, for all of his necessary brashness, might learn a little something from this man.

The happy couple manages to find a dump for $325-a-month in a section of Columbus called “The Bottoms,” which tells you all you need to know about its daily effect on one’s sanity. It should surprise no one that until a few days before, a crack house did its business downstairs. And needless to say, the place is cold, crawling with ants, and lacks a single stick of furniture (normally not an issue, but remember, these folks started out with only a few hundred dollars and no property). Fortunately, a “free store” exists nearby, but it’s a sorry state of affairs when people have to rely on these largely religious organizations. Still, that’s the way Republicans want it — dismantle the social safety net and leave everything to Jesus. Morgan first gets a temp job for $7 an hour, while his fiancé washes dishes at a coffee shop. The work is hard and demeaning, and after 11 hours for Mr. Spurlock, his check totals just a shade over $45. With two people working at this rate, it’s theoretically possible to make ends meet (that is, if mere subsistence is acceptable), but this sort of life does not allow for even minor emergencies, to say nothing of hospital visits or a quick dash to the “free” clinic. And of course, Morgan hurts his wrist, while his fiancé develops a serious urinary tract infection that requires medication. You see where this is going. Most people are forced to keep these things quiet (what else can one do?) And when it becomes a matter of life and death, then and only then does one visit the emergency room. Obviously, such people are unable to pay the grossly inflated rates of today’s “top notch” health care facilities (like a $300 fee just for walking in the door), so the bills are absorbed by others, which further drives up rates, as well as closing hospitals across the country. And while we’re on the subject, if socialized medicine is so wretchedly inefficient, what does that make a private, for-profit system where an ACE bandage costs $40? As Spurlock so accurately states, “We don’t have health care, we have sick care.” Surely preventive medicine would save us billions of dollars in the end, but that might force top surgeons to turn in one of their seven BMWs from time to time.

Eventually, Morgan is forced to get a second job because his fiancé is temporarily sidelined by her health problems. At this point, he is spending 18 hours a day away from home, which pretty much ends any hope for a meaningful relationship. And what if the pair had kids? As a further experiment, Morgan’s nephew and niece stop by for the weekend, which forces him to spend what remained of his spare change in order to treat the kids to a dollar movie and sixty-cent baked goods. This section leads to a hilariously depressing segment in the library where Morgan hunts on the internet for free activities in the Columbus area. Three particular choices stand out: an animal shelter, the bank (“Look at the money you’ll never have”), and the hospital. Imagine living the sort of life where a tour of a financial institution is actually an escape from drudgery. The only surprise is that among the working poor, there aren’t more suicides. At the very least, I understand and sympathize with the alcohol and drug use.

The overall effect of “Minimum Wage” is sobering to be sure, but Spurlock is a good sport, and he never lets his ego get in the way of the fun. I know it sounds strange to use such a word in the context of poverty, but no one wants to watch a weekly program of detached statistics and humorless talking heads. And as we know, humorists and cynical wits are often the best communicators of our bitter reality. As we can see, millions of people live on the edge in this country and as usual, no one really cares. We talk about family values, all the while passing legislation and electing leaders who do little but crush the life out of the mothers and fathers who must raise the very children who will one day make up the next generation of desperate souls.

Conservatives will always say that these jobs are reserved for teenagers and plucky retirees looking for a little extra bingo money, but outright lies will never disguise the fact that one of the greatest crimes we Americans tolerate is that people who play by the rules and punch a clock each and every day are forced to live like animals. But as the frantic push to privatize everything in our midst reaches its peak, we can rest assured that the offspring of these people, now without even the opportunity for a publicly-funded education, will sign over their lives to dehumanizing work at a very early age, bringing back a form of slavery that many of us thought no longer existed. But if you have no time for anything else but backbreaking, soul-crushing labor — no art, no books, no conversation, no distractions, no reflection of any kind — there’s no reason to assume that you’re anything else.