Poverty has a way of not seeming so bad to many students. For traditional students who’ve come straight out of their parents home and into the dorms of a university the world can seem like a very manageable place. Frequently when I tell my students that a full time worker making $7.25/hr receives roughly $940 a month, more than a few of them say, “Wow, that’d be great!” Their privilege and their parents economic support obscure the true costs of life.

One activity that I picked up years ago was to have students create a budget to see if they could really live off of minimum wage. This activity is in no way my own creation. It has been covered by Labeff and Clark (1986) in Teaching Sociology and I picked it up from one of my mentors Dr. Helen Moore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The only twist I put on the activity is that I have students read an excerpt from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed.

Download my version of this activity here.

After students have read this excerpt I tell them to imagine that they have two children ages 1 and 3 and that they work full time at the local mall for $7.25/hr. Students are then expected to search local newspapers and websites to find an actual place they could live in town. Then they have to call childcare centers to get quoted prices for 40 hours a week of care for their children. After that they have to budget for utilities, a grocery budget, transportation costs, and any other cost they can think of.

When they have completed their budget, I ask them to write a 3 page paper that discusses how hard they think it would be to raise a family on minimum wage. I have them compare Ehrenreich’s experiences on minimum wage to their experience creating the budget. Lastly, I ask them, “After putting this budget together what would you say to someone who says that people on welfare are lazy and working the system for a easy life?”

Almost every student who I’ve spoken with after this assignment has said that life on minimum wage would be really hard for a single person let alone a parent of two children. I love this assignment because it allows students to walk half a mile in another person’s shoes. This activity grounds sociology’s lessons in the “real world” and in the experiences of the student.

LaBeff, Emily E. and Robert E. Clark. 1986. “Budgeting for the Eighties: Living Middle Class: A Class Project for Introductory Sociology” Teaching Sociology 14(2):136-137.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. 2001. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. Henry Holt and Company. New York:NY