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Life at America's bottom wage

The House is to vote Wednesday on a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

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It's the kind of December evening when the Hosier family might want to stay home.

At work all day, John Hosier has been resting on the living-room couch. Tina, his wife, has had her hands full taking care of their two young children. Yet, here they are, rolling 18-month-old Rose in a stroller with 5-year-old Donald tagging along, on a half-mile walk to the Salvation Army Church in Muskogee, Okla.

It's not just a place of worship and fellowship. The Salvation Army's affiliated store offers discounted goods and employs Mr. Hosier full time. The $6-an-hour job is the family's sole paycheck, which amounts to barely $200 a week. Even with government aid, such as food stamps, the family is on poverty's doorstep. "If it wasn't for the Salvation Army, I don't know where I'd be," Hosier says.

Wednesday, Congress formally begins considering helping families like the Hosiers by raising the nation's minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, up from the $5.15 rate that has held steady since 1997.

By one estimate, the expected hike would directly affect the paychecks of 6.6 million low-wage workers like John Hosier. Another 8 million workers have wages that, while a bit too high to be forced upward by the law, stand to gain from an upward ripple effect when the wage floor is adjusted.

A glimpse into the lives of people who live at bottom-rung pay rates illustrates why, to supporters of the change, the minimum wage is long overdue for a raise. But it also reveals that such a boost isn't a one-step solution for the challenges that face America's poorest workers.

In fact, many families are poor today even though they earn far above $7.25 an hour.

"Until you're making $10 or $12 an hour, if you're [a single-income household] with dependents, you're going to have a really tough time making ends meet without public assistance," says David Blatt, a poverty expert at the Community Action Project of Tulsa County, about 40 miles from Muskogee in the state's northeastern section.

Oklahoma family's needs: $33,000
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