This is based on this question on Politics.SE.

There's currently a "Live the Wage Challenge" which a former governor and several congresspeople are publicly doing (abcnews, politico). The challenge claims on their official site that out of the $290/week a full-time minimum wage worker in the United States makes, they have to pay an average of $176.48 for housing and $35.06 for taxes, leaving $77 for food, transportation, and other expenses.

Quoted from the Live the Wage information sheet:

July 24, 2014 marks 5 years since the last time the federal minimum wage increased. For five years, the federal minimum wage has remained stagnant at $7.25 an hour, meaning a family supported by a worker earning the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line — which is the case for far too many Americans today. Our nation can’t wait any longer.

After average taxes and housing expenses, the approximate weekly budget for someone earning the federal minimum wage is $77. This is the budget you have to cover a week’s worth of your meals, groceries, transportation, and recreational spending.

Aside from the fact their math is slightly off (290 - 176.48 - 35.06 = 78.46), they also don't provide any sources for their "averages". So: Are there any sources to back up the claimed average housing/tax expenses?

  • 3
    Should this question never see an answer that isn't deemed "original research", I suggest looking at the Social Security Administration and IRS to verify the tax number, and looking at the American Community Survey (the University of Minnesota has a nice way to access it) to determine the rent paid by a person earning around the minimum wage.
    – drew
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 21:17
  • 2
    Answers should merely verify or disprove the figures with objective verifiable facts. Let's avoid speculation, indirect evidence and applied economics :-)
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 0:45
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    @ChrisW I've removed your comment, you are confusing mods and community. Mods did not discuss the merit of the question. Hard evidence and facts are required on any question. Speculation and theoretical answers are discouraged on any. Answering the question specifically is required in all cases. The question is "Are there any sources to back up the claimed average housing/tax expenses?" hence my comment. Mods do not determine what is a good or a bad answer, the community does so. We only monitor that answers have the evidence that the community needs to judge.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 8:22
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    @Sklivviz, I'm still curious. What was not objective, verificable, or factual about an answer that cited tax law and census data? Is math now subjective?
    – drew
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 16:05
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    The official site is run by Organizing For Action facebook.com/OFA, it should be possible to ask them where their average figures come from and assess whether their method is reasonable.
    – John Lyon
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 1:52

1 Answer 1


tl;dr- No, $77/week isn't a realistic figure for full-time minimum wage workers. There's not really much to debunk here since the figure's source doesn't claim that it's factual or even realistic.

Note that the original website isn't hosted anymore; going to the same URL seems to lead to some sort of blog/advertising site. The below analysis is primarily based on the "challenge toolkit" PDF.

The $77/week figure

As noted in the question, the figure's calculated as the weekly income, less taxes, less living expenses, coming to $78.46/week. As explained by "LIVE THE WAGE CHALLENGE TOOLKIT":

Q: Why $77 a week?

A: The weekly budget for the minimum wage challenge is based on the earnings of a full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, minus average taxes and housing costs. Tax costs are based on a national average that includes federal and state taxes. Housing costs are based on the national average rent for a 1 bedroom apartment.

So, they're assuming that someone earning minimum wage is renting a 1-bedroom apartment at the average national rate. This isn't at all realistic; most minimum wage workers live with others, and there's simply no reason that someone struggling to buy food wouldn't tend to prefer cheaper apartments.

However, the people issuing the challenge didn't claim that this was realistic in the first place:

Q: Is this a realistic exercise?

A: We have made a number of simplifications to make the Challenge more accessible. For example, we have not factored in geographic variations in taxes and housing costs, and we are not asking participants to consider things like a health care emergency or a broken down car. But the choices you will face in taking the Live the Wage Challenge are real – these are the sorts of choices that minimum wage workers are confronted with every day.

Further, while the challenge focuses on how hard it is to buy food on that budget, the people pushing the challenge acknowledge that this population's supplemented by food stamps:

Q: Don’t many minimum wage workers receive SNAP benefits to help with their food budget?

A: Yes, minimum wage workers make so little that many receive SNAP (food stamp benefits). In fact, raising the federal minimum wage would lift approximately 3.1 million to 3.6 million people out of SNAP.

This statement itself is misleading, most (76%) people who make minimum wage aren't poor, and most (91%) poor people don't consistency work at all. (reference)

It's a political message, not a factual claim

The document starts with a quick description of the challenge, but most of it's about how to spread the political message. Its table of contents:

  • Instructions for the Challenge
  • Message Guidance
  • Social Media Resources
  • Key Facts
  • State by State Impact of Raising the Minimum Wage
  • Questions and Answers

Ultimately, the $77/week isn't realistic, nor does the source claim that it is. Its primary problems are:

  1. Most people who earn minimum wage don't live on their income alone. (reference)

  2. Most people who earn minimum wage don't pay for their own single-bedroom apartment (reference), much less at average cost since low-income households spend a fraction of the average (Figure 5).

  3. For the minority of minimum wage earners who are poor, there are food stamps and other assistance programs. (acknowledged by the challenge source)


Poverty's a horrible thing, and this answer isn't meant to suggest otherwise. Merely, the $77/week challenge is political bunk, not factual reality.

  • Wow, I'd forgotten all about this. Where did you find that toolkit? That's much more detailed than the one I linked.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 11:54
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    Your statement that "renting a 1 bedroom apartment is not realistic" is missing part of the point. While many minimum wage earners do share accommodation, some are not in a position to do that. Some have dependents. The point is that the problems this exercise highlights are real, If it was real for you, would you be able to live on this wage? Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 12:46
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    @DJClayworth This answer's about the $77/week figure in specific, which is generally false for the above reasons, e.g. even for those who get an apartment, why an average-priced one? The data shows that this isn't realistic.
    – Nat
    Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 16:45
  • @Bobson Lots of searching I guess. =P This topic was notably difficult to find good sources for, since the good bulk of information out there was political advocacy, and there's apparently relatively little public research into how low-income earners spend their money. What I could find suggests that minimum-wage earners are a hugely diverse group, making it difficult to make too many general statements about them. But, it does appear that the political campaigners misrepresented the issue.
    – Nat
    Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 17:01
  • Seems to me one major problem (intentional distortion?) is with the claim of "a family supported by a worker earning the minimum wage". That seems to purposely overlook the many (perhaps most) minimum wage workers who are just starting out &c, and so don't have families to support.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 17, 2017 at 17:42

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