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Rep. Tim Ryan puts himself in the shoes of a minimum wage worker

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan is living on $77 for a week as part of a campaign to raise the minimum wage.
Rep. Tim Ryan
Rep. Tim Ryan, (D-OH) speaks in Washington in 2011.

Rep. Tim Ryan has cut out his afternoon coffee break and trip to Dairy Queen with his kids. No fresh fish or glass of wine with dinner. When he ran out of vitamins, he didn't go out and buy another bottle. This week, he's decided that he can't afford it. 

Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio, is living on $77 for seven days as part of a campaign to raise the minimum wage. His wife Andrea, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland are also participating in the challenge, which is being organized by 66 advocacy and research organizations and began last Thursday. 

Ryan says he's not under the illusion that he'll experience real life at the minimum wage. "I don't think my wife and I are going to get anywhere close to the reality," he said. "We have stuff in our medicine cabinets. We have toothpaste. We have the things we already need in our homes."

But he believes the gesture sends a message. "If you’re representing people you should try to put yourself in their shoes," said Ryan. "They can call it a stunt or a gimmick. The reality is that millions of people do it. The alternative is we look the other way, and we pretend it's not a problem."

The campaign's organizers calculated that $77 would be what the average worker -- working 40 hours a week, at the federal $7.25 minimum wage -- would have to spend after housing expenses and taxes. 

Ryan found himself quickly overspending last week while he was in Washington, where he doesn't cook or even have cooking utensils in his apartment. "I ended up getting pizza for breakfast and lunch, $3 each, which is a terrible waste of money," he said. "I drove home on Friday, I got a Whopper from Burger King."

There were also expenses that Ryan didn't anticipate. "My wife called and let me know we had to pick up a couple of prescriptions for our new baby. Cost $24. So we are down to $130 before we even got started," he wrote on his Facebook page.

When he got home to Ohio this weekend, Ryan tried to do more to plan meals for the week. But he quickly found that some of the cheapest food -- pasta, bread, pancakes -- didn't tend to be the healthiest. "A lot of the food that can last isn’t necessarily the food you should be eating a lot of," he said. He and his wife have tried to balance their diet with lots of eggs and some fresh produce from the farmer's stand (13 ears of corn for $5.50, a bunch of squash for $5). But that hasn't solved the problem either. "They're not as filling," he said. 

That's been the biggest takeaway for Ryan so far. "You set people up to purchase the cheapest, most processed foods," he says. "It’s cheap but what does that do to the health care costs? You see first hand why we’re setting people up to fail, health-wise." 

Democrats have tried to move forward with a bill to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, but Republicans have blocked the legislation. In February, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the change would lift 900,000 out of poverty but also cost 500,000 jobs as employers reduce hiring to make up for higher labor costs. The issue is now a central pillar of many Democratic campaigns. 

Ryan and his wife are trying to stretch their dollars for the rest of the week, leaning on rice, beans, and a bratwurst dinner. But the congressman doubts he'll be able to stay within budget through Wednesday. "I think we’re going to come up a little shy," he said.