The first question of the fourth Republican presidential debate was about the minimum wage, an issue that, until then, had only received a single mention in more than seven hours of the previous three debates.
The question was unexpected. The answers were not.
“I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is,” Donald Trump said of raising the federal minimum wage, which has been locked at $7.25 since 2009. “People have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into that upper stratum.”
On Wednesday, calling in to Fox and Friends, Trump said he was surprised that people might find it jarring that a billionaire would tell millions of people living on a poverty wage to work harder.
"It’s the first time I’ve even heard about it,” he said of the criticism of his comment. “I just called in and I’m hearing about it now for the first time, so obviously it can’t be much of a story."
But Ariel and Cody Newby, a young married couple living in Des Moines, Iowa, think it’s kind of a big story.
Talking about the Republican field’s near unanimous opposition to raising the minimum wage—John Kasich has said he would support a “reasonable” increase, the only major Republican candidate to do so—Cody singled out Trump in particular:
“You've got Donald Trump who flat out said, Oh, I’ve known hard times, my father gave me a million dollar loan. I mean, if my father gave me a million dollars to start out on, we’d be pretty well set.”
Instead, they have to get by on what they earn.
“I just started making $10 an hour, which is a lot better than any of the jobs I held in the past,” Ariel, who is 20 and works as a cashier for a contract company, told me over the phone. The job, which still pays 44 cents less than a living wage for a single adult, isn't a starter position, either: Part of the requirement for the job was at least two years previous cashier experience. "If I hadn’t had that, I wouldn’t have gotten it,” Ariel said.
Cody, 24, is looking for full-time work, but, like so many other young adults, has been having a hard time finding it. He currently makes $10.25 an hour working part-time and is able to supplement that with his army reserve pay. But, he said, “even with the three paychecks," they still have a hard time staying above water.
“There are times when we’re having to go without meals to make sure the bills are paid,” he said. “Like right now: we were only able to pay half our rent this month. And we don’t have the ability to save, which becomes problematic.”
Particularly as they think about starting a family.
According to MIT’s living wage calculator, a living wage for a family of three with one adult working full time in Des Moines is $20.40—more than double what Ariel currently earns. For a dual-income household, a living wage for a family with one kid is still $12.10, which is more than either is currently making.
Neither has paid parental leave, either, making their lack of savings a real obstacle to starting a family. “I can use vacation days that I have earned, but [the rest] is unpaid leave,” Ariel said. “So I can have the time off, but they aren’t going to pay me for it.”
While the three Democratic candidates have all backed different paid leave and minimum wage proposals—when it comes to raising the federal minimum, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley support $15, while Hillary Clinton has endorsed $12—Ariel and Cody said they don’t hear their concerns reflected in the current Republican field. And the lack of attention work and family issues have received more broadly has led them to become active with Make It Work, a campaign pushing for paid leave and other programs to support for working families.
“Some of these candidates don’t fully understand true hard times,” Cody said. “They know nothing of poverty. They don’t know about living with just what you have, not with what you’ve been given.”
But even the Republican candidates from comparatively modest backgrounds—like Marco Rubio and Ben Carson—oppose basic measures, like raising the minimum wage and universal paid leave, that would give working families a leg up. (Back in September, Ben Carson said that the minimum wage should “probably” be increased, but walked back that comment during Tuesday’s debate. Asked directly if he would raise the federal minimum, Carson replied: “I would not raise it.”)
Rubio is the only Republican candidate to put out any kind of a plan on paid leave, but his proposal is a voluntary tax credit. It’s a move that may score him some political points in a field that has otherwise left the issue unaddressed, but, as Terri Boyer, executive director and assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s Center for Women and Work recently told me, it won’t do much to help couples like Ariel and Cody.
“My focus as a researcher has always been that these sorts of work supports reach the low-income people who are working part-time job to part-time job, trying to make ends meet, but aren’t able to do that when they have to take leave,” she explained. “I’m thinking that a tax credit would not provide that kind of access."
So while candidates like Trump and Carson flout existing data to argue that raising the minimum wage hurts business and Congress maintains its deadlock on the issue, Ariel and Cody, who are stuck wondering what their wages might mean for the future they want.
It's a hard place to be, Ariel said: “They don’t truly understand that raising the minimum wage to even just $12 an hour would greatly benefit so many families.”