She got up at 4 in the morning. She had her three boys – then 11, 9 and 5 – up, fed and dressed by 5. She piled them into the 1998 Plymouth Breeze and headed out to deliver advertising circulars.
At 8, she dropped the kids off at school. She finished her rounds, then drove to a Wilson Farms. She worked a 10-to-4 shift as assistant manager. Then she collected the kids, took them to a friend's house, and put in a couple of hours checking product displays.
“By the time I got home,” Kara Powell said of those times, “I was so exhausted I could barely cook dinner.”
Anybody working a 60-hour week should at least be comfortable, if not rich. That is not life as Kara Powell has ever known it.
Battle lines are being drawn on raising the minimum wage to $8.75. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo got behind it in Wednesday's State of the State speech. Business types are pushing back, claiming that higher payrolls will slice profits.
In the real-world middle is Kara Powell. She is 34, pleasant, with a no-excuses attitude. The financial bottom dropped out when her husband left years ago. She has in the past decade done the three-job shuffle and the two-job two-step. She has, reluctantly, spent between-jobs time on the dole. She now mixes part-time clerk work with ECC classes and chores at a Buffalo community center. She has never made more than $400 a week.
You can raise a family on that. You can, if you buy clothes at the Salvation Army. If you never eat out. If you learn to cut your kids' hair. If you don't have cable TV. If you use food stamps. If you eat a lot of spaghetti. If you never – as in not once – take a vacation.
“No Disney or any of that,” she told me Friday, during a work break. “Even free ice skating, I don't have the time.”
This is life at the bottom rung of the ladder. It is a way of life for a lot of “invisible” people who take the bus and who work in the glow of fluorescent lights. For many, pride is the line between $7.25 an hour and welfare.
“I want to be self-sufficient,” Powell told me. “It bothers me when I need [public] services.”
She rents a three-bedroom place in Riverside for $500. Add car-phone-food-clothes-bills, and at week's end she has this much left: zero.
The same argument works for upping the minimum wage that did for free trade: Inflating the standard of living in Third World countries creates consumers. The more people there are – whether in Buffalo or Bolivia – to buy everything from clothes to cars to TVs, the more it helps, not hurts, businesses.
“If I had more money to spend on my kids,” Powell told me, “that's money that gets put back into the community ... The only time we have extra is when the tax [refund] check comes.”
It is not just high school kids working weekends who scrape bottom. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, half the people making less than $8 an hour work at least 35 hours a week.
I asked Powell what she would do if she made more money.
“I could take the kids to Putt-Putt, or Dave and Buster's,” she said. “I could spend more time with them, instead of working a second job.”
With our deal-making governor flexing his muscle, there is a good chance the wage floor will rise this year.
If that happens, Kara Powell might be able to take her kids out for pizza.