Terry Chester was 15 when he got his first job at the I-70 Drive-In, making $2.90 per hour. That was minimum wage at the time.
Decades later, after the recession, he found himself working for minimum wage again as a sacker at Sun Fresh. Chester, 53, has been there five years and now makes $9.85 an hour. He said he lives paycheck to paycheck.
“If I have any added expenses come up, I have to sacrifice a bill, or save money for a prolonged period of time to deal with it,” he said.
Chester is one of many low-wage workers across the state who would see their pay go up if Proposition B passes on Nov. 6. The proposed constitutional amendment would raise the minimum wage by 85 cents a year until 2023, when it would max out at $12 an hour.
This isn’t the first time Kansas City, Missouri, has waged this battle. Last August, 69 percent of voters in the metro area approved a measure to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour, plus a yearly increase of $1.25 starting in 2019 until it reached $15 in 2022.
But state lawmakers blocked it, along with a similar effort in St. Louis, passing a bill that said local municipalities are not permitted to raise their minimum wage independent of the state.
The difference this time around is that the effort to raise the wage is statewide, which Missouri Jobs for Justice Executive Director Caitlyn Adams said is a tested solution.
“This is not the-sky-is-falling theory that folks use,” Adams said, pointing to the gradual minimum wage hike that Arkansas voters approved in 2014.
A study from MIT suggests a single adult in Kansas City needs to make $11.05 an hour to get by. The same calculation says an adult with one child needs to make $24.06. But at $7.85, a full-time minimum wage worker in Missouri takes home only about $16,000 a year.
“$7.85 is a ridiculous slap in the face to working people,” said Wilson Vance of Raise Up Missouri, which is the campaign for Prop B (organized by Missouri Jobs for Justice).
“There's not a single county in the state where you can get by on that,” Vance said.
Vance said she knows this struggle first-hand, coming from a single-parent, minimum wage household. She said sometimes her mom didn’t eat so she could; snacks were raw potatoes, and meals were mustard on white bread.
“I don't think that anybody wants to live in a world where you can work full-time and wonder where your next meal's gonna come from,” she said.
Economist Michael Strain, who works for the conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute, agreed that “no one who works full time as head of household should live in poverty.”
But he doesn’t think that raising the minimum wage is the answer. To make up for increased labor costs, he said, businesses will have to start charging more for the products their own employees buy.
“In other words, you pay somebody more money with your left hand and then you take that pay back at the cash register with your right hand,” Strain said.
Research also suggests a higher minimum wage results in more productivity and less turnover in the workplace, which saves businesses money. More than 400 Missouri businesses — most of them small — have backed Prop B, including a hundred here in Kansas City.
Vance said the scope of low-wage workers varies: She’s met janitors, home health-care workers and teachers’ aides who are making near minimum wage, and the majority have children. Strain, though, argued that most who make minimum wage are doing fine.
He grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, and worked at the Hy-Vee grocery store at 95th and Antioch as a teenager.
“Even though I was a minimum wage worker, I was not living in poverty because my parents earned a solid middle-class income. It just happens to be the case that, that dynamic describes most minimum wage workers,” he said.
Chester said he wishes that was the case.
“These are wages a teenager should be making. Not someone my age,” he said. “I know society looks at you, like, ‘You’re a loser. What happened to you?’”
Prop B has a lot of support in Missouri. And with just about a month to go before the midterm election, there are no committees registered to oppose the initiative.