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You can't make a living as a fast food worker — I've tried

Navarre Overton is a freelance writer working at home while parenting a toddler and two teens.

What it's really like working in fast food and living on food stamps

I only made $6.25 an hour when I started working a fast food job in 2001. This was higher than minimum wage, which was $5.15 at the time, but still I found myself barely able to scrape by.

"I'm not sure I can even afford my rent this month," I told a friend who asked why I couldn't grab a coffee. She didn't understand and started giving me financial advice.

I'd heard it all before: cut down on small unnecessary expenses, buy in bulk and save. But there was no money to save, nothing I could cut back on, no extra hours to pick up at my job, and little time to search for something with higher pay, more hours and benefits. I also couldn't afford to do things like buy in bulk and would often buy a single roll of toilet paper.

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The truth wasn't that I was irresponsibly throwing away my hard-earned money on discretionary items but that my rent and necessary bills were much higher than my income. I was taking home about $700 a month. My rent — for a one-bedroom apartment in one of the poorest neighborhoods in my city — was $630. When you added my utilities, transportation costs and food, I simply could not afford it all without help. So, I received food stamps, frequented food pantry shelves and applied for a rental subsidy from a local nonprofit to get by.

Many fast food employees today have to supplement their income with public assistance, just like I did. According to a report by the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education, nearly 50 percent of all fast food workers have at least one person in their household receiving public assistance.

This isn't solely because the wages are too low, of course. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average fast food worker only works about 25 hours a week. But although some are teenagers and part-time employees by choice, and others can't work 40 hours a week, many have their hours limited by their employers despite their ability and willingness to work a full week.

This was the case for me and many of my coworkers. Our manager wouldn't schedule us for more than 35 hours in a given week. Most weeks it was closer to 30. If an extra shift was available, we'd all jump at the chance. We all needed more work, we all needed the money.

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A few months after I started, I got a 50 cent raise. But that still wasn't enough. I still qualified for food stamps and the housing subsidy. I still couldn't save, or buy in bulk. I still felt like I couldn't work my way out of poverty. My wages were just too low. Even if I was able to consistently pick up 40 hours a week, I would still be poor. What I needed to survive was a living wage.

That's what the $15-an-hour movement is asking for — a wage that enables workers to pay their rent and bills, feed their families, afford transportation and cover all other basic needs without assistance if they're working 40 hours a week. It's not a handout, nor is it a call for fast food workers to make more than EMTs, teachers or other low-salaried workers. Those people should make more as well. It's simply a call for a fair wage for hard work.

And I'm not trying to say that a person's value or right to basic needs is somehow tied to the number of hours of paid labor they put in each week. Some people just can't work a full week and public assistance should be available to them.

But for those able and willing to work 40 hours a week — whether it's serving burgers, cleaning offices or stocking our grocery stores — they should, at the very least, be able to pay rent and utilities, put food on the table, afford transportation and daycare, buy toilet paper in bulk and even afford birthday presents for their kids.

My coworkers and I would frequently talk about our struggles between breakfast and the lunch rush, while cleaning tables or restocking salad dressing. We would talk about all the things we wished we could give our kids and how much we missed them. Many of us had dreams. Some of us wanted to go to school. Others wanted to work their way into a managerial position. And others just wanted to someday find a salaried job with benefits. But not a single one of us was happy spending nearly a third of our lives — which was closer to half for those of us with long commutes on public transportation — at a job that didn't even pay us enough to provide for our families. We just didn't see a way out.

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We felt trapped. As do many Americans today. And it's getting worse. Moving up from minimum wage has become more difficult. In fact, almost one-third of workers earning minimum wage don't work their way up for at least a year, an increase from one-fifth in the '90s.

And although the federal minimum wage has increased to $7.25 since my burger serving days, so has the cost of living. That one-bedroom apartment that cost me $630 in 2002 would likely be rented out today at $900 a month. This doesn't leave the fast food employees today in a much better position than I was over a decade ago. People are still struggling despite their hard work.

But they shouldn't be. They should be able to at least earn a living.

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