39-year old second-generation fast food worker Terrence Wise testified Thursday to the House Committee on Education and Labor with a simple message: hard-working Americans are homeless.
“I’ve felt the struggle of raising a family on low wages my whole life,” said Wise. “Hard-working people with two full-time incomes shouldn’t live like this in the richest nation on Earth.”
Wise told the story of his parents — a Hardees employee and a military cook — who couldn’t make a month of meals work on both their full-time wages and food stamps. Wise, as a teen, got two jobs to help his family. It took a toll on his education — something he had excelled at.
“I didn’t need AP calculus to run the numbers at home. It wasn’t enough to survive.”
Wise dreamed of attending college at the University of South Carolina. He had the grades. But at 17, he dropped out of high school to help make ends meet. He never became a South Carolina Gamecock. He became a fast food employee for life.
And despite working two fast food jobs, and being engaged to a home health care provider, Wise and his three children have been homeless, spending cold Missouri winters living out of a purple minivan.
“You should not have multiple jobs in the United States and nowhere to sleep,” Wise said.
On Thursday, Kansas City fast-food worker Terrence Wise gave testimony before the Committee Education and Labor.
His story represents that of millions in the American working class.
— Fight For 15 (@fightfor15) February 8, 2019
This is a reality for thousands of workers in a growing number of cities across America. But from elected leaders to financial planners, many in power seem to be woefully disconnected with the economic reality of the average worker.
The reality is that nearly half of Americans struggle to pay rent. In no city, state or county in the United States can the minimum wage afford a 2-bedroom home. And nearly two-thirds of Americans are one major emergency away from their world crumbling down.
Still, corporations engage in tactics that maximize profit by minimizing employee pay. The gig economy is notorious for this, including ride hailing apps that pay less than minimum wage and grocery delivery services that use employees’ tips to offset and reduce their base pay.
And government hasn’t been in workers’ corner either. When a popular proposal to raise the minimum wage in Michigan was poised to be passed by the state’s voters in 2018, the Republican-controlled legislature adopted it in order to remove it from the ballot, then gutted it immediately after the election, effectively blocking the citizen initiative process.
Similarly, Wise’s home of Kansas City actually voted to raise the minimum wage to $15, but Missouri blocked it in 2017. Despite being among the top states in terms of minimum wage today, Missouri still has now allowed Kansas City the $15 an hour that they voted for overwhelmingly.
Being a low-wage worker comes with other indignities. For the first time in a century, workers went on a nationwide strike last September protesting commonplace, institutional sexual harassment. In Kansas City, a McDonald’s employee nearly bled to death on the job.
But as Wise pointed out in his testimony, the Fight for $15 — which was involved both in the harassment strike and the worker who nearly died on the job — has driven the national conversation. Thanks to the movement, low-wage workers all over America have seen raises.
“Many people didn’t believe $15 an hour was possible,” said Wise. “But it has become a reality for 22 million workers across the country.”
Wise’s testimony was part of Congressional hearings on the Raise the Wage Act, which would set $15 as the federal minimum wage by 2024.
It has virtually no chance of becoming law.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.