Mrs. Thomas twisted her fingers nervously in her lap. We sat at the kitchen table in her Vine City home, collection notices and court papers spread out before us.
“I wanted to pay the credit card bill,” she told me. “I knew I owed it, and I knew I was supposed to pay. I just didn’t have the money.” Mrs. Thomas called for legal help after she went to the bank to withdraw money and learned that her account had been frozen because of a garnishment.
She pushed back from the table and stood up, grimacing, holding the back of the chair to steady herself. Her degenerative spine disorder was getting worse, she told me, and I could see the effects of chronic pain in her rail-thin frame and stooped shoulders. Then Mrs. Thomas looked in my eyes and said, “My daddy would be so ashamed of me. He earned minimum wage his whole life, but was still able to buy a nice house for us to live in. When he owed money, he paid it. I feel so embarrassed.”
I shook my head. “It’s not your fault, Mrs. Thomas.” Over time, the buying power of minimum wage has dropped dramatically. According to a 2014 report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is 22 percent below its peak value in the late 1960s, after adjusting for inflation. Today’s minimum wage is only about 30 percent of the average wage of production workers and non-managerial workers, compared to 50 percent in the 1960s. Income inequality – the ocean between the very poor and the very rich – has gotten far worse in the wake of the Great Recession.
When Mrs. Thomas’s father was a working man with a growing family, the minimum wage was enough to provide for a family. Today, a family of four with both parents working full-time minimum wage jobs will earn $30,160 annually – barely over the federal poverty level.
Mrs. Thomas herself had worked for many years, until her spinal condition made work impossible. Now she lived alone and received Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) benefits of just $976 per month. On that impoverished income, she could no longer afford to pay her rent, utilities, medical copays, and credit card minimum payment, and so her credit card went into default.
Mrs. Thomas blamed herself for not being able to achieve the “American Dream” that her father had attained, back when the minimum wage was nearly a living wage. She blamed herself for being too sick to keep up with the payments on her 28% interest rate credit card. And she even blamed herself for the garnishment, until I explained to her that SSDI benefits are exempt from garnishment under federal law, and that the bank blatantly violated that law when it froze her account. With strong legal representation, Mrs. Thomas got the garnishment dismissed and recovered all of her frozen funds.
I came to work for Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation so that I can help low income people like Mrs. Thomas take a small step in the direction of justice. As AVLF’s new director of housing and consumer programs, I ask you to take that step with me. A single good lawyer with an ounce of compassion can change a life. A city full of good lawyers with a taste for justice can change the world. Please join us. CBPP report available online at http://www.cbpp.org/files/1-7-14minwg.pdf.