Tips from Across the Atlantic

I spent last month traveling around Europe, where I mostly frolicked around in art museums and cathedrals. Not a bad life. I also ate some pretty fantastic food, and each time the bill came, I automatically started doing my usual mental math: there’s the total, move the decimal point, multiply by two. Oh wait was that the amount before tax? Do we have more than six in our party? More than once, I was reminded that we were not expected to leave anywhere near the familiar 15-20% tip, and a service charge was sometimes already in place.

Here in the States, tipping has become standard in the service industry, especially in  restaurant culture. Eateries that offer alternatives to the tipping system are far and few. Studies have shown that Americans overwhelmingly prefer tipping to a service charge. Maybe we feel that a service charge deprives us of the power to stick it to bad waiters, but studies have shown that the correlation between tips and service is weak. Tips are based largely on the bill amount, and customers usually tip the same percentage regardless of service quality.

Tipping

The U.S. is also one of the only countries to establish a separate minimum wage for tipped employees. While the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, the minimum tipped wage is only $2.13. Minimum wage in the U.S. lags behind much of western Europe, but the situation is worse for tipped employees. While minimum wage was last raised in 2009, tipped minimum wage has remained stagnant for the last twenty-two years. To put that into perspective, twenty-two years ago, a loaf of bread cost an average of 70 cents.

It’s common to think of tips as a reward for good service or the lack of tips as punishment for bad, but as it currently stands, restaurant workers rely almost entirely on tips to make a living. As a result, many struggle to make ends meet. Are we too cynical for the argument that decently paid workers will deliver good service without the additional incentive? I hope not. Employers should not be able to pay their wait staff the same wages as they did in 1991, and I challenge anyone to find bread now for 70 cents. As the battle for higher pay wages on (pun a little bit intended), let’s extend the case to include the tipped workers, lest we make them eat cake.

-Serena

Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.

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The Hole in Healthcare Coverage: States’ Rejection of Medicaid Expansion

Almost a year ago, I was working as a research intern at the National Institute of Health. It was during my lunch break when my friend and coworker peered over her smartphone to announce to the table that the Supreme Court had upheld the Affordable Care Act. Many of us had followed the debates and controversy surrounding the Affordable Care Act since President Obama signed it into law in 2010. And for the rest of the day, the excitement in the building was palpable as news of the ruling spread.

Ideally, the Affordable Care Act was indeed something to be excited about. It eliminates many gaps in healthcare, particularly amongst the uninsured. Notable changes to insurance coverage includes young adults’ eligibility to join their parents health plans, an end to exclusion of children and adults with pre-existing conditions, and a prohibition of lifetime or annual limits on benefits.

However, the Supreme Court ruling also struck down the law’s mandated expansion of Medicaid, a loophole that some states are now exploiting. With Wisconsin as the latest state legislature to reject the proposed Medicaid expansion, many of the country’s citizens with the lowest incomes would be among those left uninsured.

aviary-21
A handy illustration of how the hole created by rejection of Medicaid expansion would lie directly under the poorest.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker cited “fiscal uncertainty coming out of Washington, D.C.” among the reasons for his opposition to the Medicaid expansion, but Democrats view the act as another ploy in the GOP’s continued resistance of “Obamacare.” You can check where your state currently stands using this interactive map.

Regardless of the reasons, states like Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri, along with their rejection of Medicaid expansion limit the effectiveness of the Affordable Care Act. Their resistance also burdens those who are the poorest. And such effects illustrate a dire failure in our basic responsibility to care for those most in need.

-Serena

Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. She is joining the Washington Reading Corps to promote literacy in local schools. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.

Takeaways from the Live Below the Line Challenge

It’s a funny thing, taking part in a challenge like Live Below the Line. My sister Jeca, who took part as well, wondered at the beginning about whose awareness we were raising. She pointed out that the people taking part would all be people who were already aware. And in many cases, had also experienced some sort of deprivation. For her, whilst traveling in Kenya and Tanzania, for my girlfriend Steph, as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Gambia for two years, and for me during various points of my travels through India. She didn’t mean it in a negative way, more in a “How do we really get the point across?” kinda way.

And in answer to that, all I can say is that it was eye-opening for me. I vacillated throughout the week on the difficulty of the challenge and the perspective I was supposed to be gaining. Certain days the difficulty wasn’t in the amount of food, or even the quality of what we were consuming. It was just the longing for supplemental things. A piece of fruit. A salad. Some juice. Heck, maybe even candy when we went to the cinema. Other days though there was a noticeable adverse reaction. Trying to maintain our normal lifestyle, like on Wednesday being on my feet for five hours at work, cycling around town, swimming at the gym, hot yoga in the evening… On that day I, and Steph, both felt the effects.

I read about other participants in the Challenge and there were a lot of similar comments. People crashing early in the evenings and going to bed, reducing or eliminating their workout routines, generally slowing down through the week.

And therein was the biggest take-away for me. Surviving on $1.50 a day, if you adapt your lifestyle to suit, is do-able. Perhaps not easy, but do-able. However, maintaining a normal active lifestyle is increasingly difficult. And for those who actually reside below the extreme poverty line, there’s no choice in the matter. For those at that level, there isn’t the option to take it easy one day. To reduce the routine. Because the routine is survival, and the attempt to maintain even their small amount of income.

So in the end, I did gain a little more awareness. And the hope is that those we talked to, and those who followed Jeca, Steph, and I as we took on the Challenge, will have lived vicariously through us. Maybe it will have given them pause for a moment, to think about the issue, and who knows? Maybe next year a few of them will take up the Challenge.

We’re not looking to change the world today. Just trying to make certain we’re on the right path.

-David

David Wilson graduated from the University of Texas in 2006. Since then he has gone wherever the wind blows him, living in Europe, China, and the States, and traveling extensively throughout the rest of the world. When he’s not on the move, you can find him obsessing over latte art, playing piano, or trying to bleach his hair in the sunshine. Follow him on Twitter.

Spotlight: Health Leads

By now, most of us have come to expect visits to the doctor to follow the same standard set of steps: you check in, sit in the waiting room, flip through People Magazine (or maybe The Economist if even sick-you is a smartypants), see the doctor for a diagnosis, take your medication prescriptions to a pharmacy, and voila, you’re on your way to getting better!

Growing up in a suburb of Connecticut, my experiences with the doctor’s office were pretty formulaic. The concept seemed simple: I was sick. I needed the doctor to give me medication, and then I would be well again. And for me, this really was, more or less, always the case. However, for millions of people in the United States, getting healthy and staying healthy is not so straightforward.

We tend to think of health as pure biology: cells, tissues, organs. Then, improving health must be a scientific endeavor. But this is a myopic view that doesn’t consider other root causes of illness. For many urban, low-income populations, bodily symptoms may only be at the surface of deeper issues. Patients who consistently have poor health often struggle with food, unsafe housing conditions, and limited or no access to a primary care physician.

Health Leads, formerly known as Project Health, seeks to address these issues by taking a more holistic approach to healthcare. In hospitals that have incorporated Health Leads, doctors may prescribe more than just your average penicillin. Healthcare providers also screen patients for basic needs, such as food or shelter, and fill a prescription, just as they would for medication. Health Leads volunteers then take over to help connect these patients to resources that can address both immediate needs and implement long-term solutions.

HealthLeads

Already established in cities like New York, Baltimore, and Chicago, Health Leads and its impact may extend beyond the clinic. The organization has generated national attention, including a shout-out from Michelle Obama to founder Rebecca Onie, as it advocates a novel approach to healthcare delivery. Health Leads seeks to combat the challenges low-income patients face outside the walls of the doctor’s office. As Onie puts it in her recent TEDMED talk: “If we know what it takes to have a healthcare system rather than a sick-care system, why don’t we just do it?”

 

-Serena

Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. She is joining the Washington Reading Corps to promote literacy in local schools. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.

Living Below the Line: Challenge Accepted

Editor’s note: David recently participated in the Live Below the Line Challenge. Read on about his week below (and be grateful keeping your pantry unblocked).

Day 0

“This one’s 86 cents.”

“This one’s 88, but it’s slightly bigger.”

“Done.”

This is how Steph and I made our way around Winco today. In the bulk section, there’s “Bet I can get closer to exactly a pound without weighing it,” and “You’re on,” and debating the merits of bananas over other fruit, and whether a loaf of bread was a good idea.

Then we went home and tried to eat all the perishables in the fridge. How are we going to survive a week without salads and fruits? Or granola and yogurt? Tortillas or even bacon? Funny the things we think of as “essentials.” Well not this week. Essentials are rice and lentils and oatmeal. Salad’s gonna be a hard one though. There might be some foraging happening later this week…

David's Grocery List

Day 1

Ran into this dilemma today, not unanticipated, but still tough: I work in a café. Steph and I had already discussed whether or not I could partake in the free meals we’re offered at work. We decided no. But then all day I was surrounded by food, and especially this gorgeous coffee cake sitting on the counter in front of me all shift. I resisted. But… I must confess, what I couldn’t resist was the coffee. I mean, I’m a barista. How could I pull espresso shots all day and not partake? I don’t have that kind of will power. Plus I’m a blogger. And if you’ve never seen me writing whilst not hopped up on caffeine, it’s not a pretty picture.

So coffee, or the lack thereof, is no longer a part of the challenge.

Day 2

“Don’t rinse that!” I called hurriedly to Steph as she started to wash a pot used for pasta sauce. She had the same thought at the same moment, and so we poured beans into the pot to cook them for tomorrow. Can’t waste anything! Even leftover tomato paste. Maybe I’m getting overly concerned about still having food to eat on Friday. It’s hard enough being a grazer, as we both are, and coming home only to see the blocked door to the pantry. No admittance. Not for the rest of this week. Drink some more water. It’ll fill you up.

It might not be helping that we’re keeping our usual routine going. Which meant ultimate Frisbee yesterday evening, and an hour long swim this afternoon, and probably hot yoga tomorrow. I might waste away to nothing…

It’s only Day 2. Get over it David. You’ll be fine.

Day 3

Steph went foraging today. Dandelions and other greens, and they definitely made a nice addition to a baked potato for lunch and pasta for dinner. Oh, and eggs and toast for breakfast. I had forgotten we had eggs we could use. Was a welcome discovery. Not enough though. We went to hot yoga tonight, after swimming for thirty minutes at the gym, and almost the moment I got in that heated room I felt lightheaded. It cleared up after a bit, but talking to Steph afterwards, apparently both of us had been seeing spots and feeling dizzy at the beginning of class.

So we spent the drive home discussing food. Saturday is going to be an epic day. I think breakfast and brunch are both happening, and we’ll go from there.

Day 4

“Lead us not into temptation…” I broke under the strain. I was feeling right next door to rubbish mid-morning at work, and the realization hit me that it was probably because half a bowl of oatmeal was just not gonna do the trick. So I caved. Accepted a free breakfast burrito. I’m not sure what penance I can do to make amends, but I’ll have to figure something out. Although it was “free,” so there’s maybe some wiggle room for me…

It’s funny the impact that a lack of certain things can have on you. Calorically we could probably be ok, and maybe if there were no other options it would suffice. But there are other options! Glorious options! My kingdom for a giant bowl of fruit. Or gummi bears. Either way.

Day 5

I was better today. Maybe the guilt/calories of the breakfast burrito yesterday served to carry me over the finish line. Oatmeal, again, to start the day, a baked potato, and beans and rice to round out the day. And an egg or two. Steph has impressed me a few times this week by creating meals that almost let me forget we’re eating the same thing day after day. A necessary trick during a week like this.

Day 6

We celebrated today. The end of the Challenge. Blew twice last week’s budget… on a single meal. Breakfast of Eggs Benedict and a Belgian Waffle. That was perhaps the most eye-opening moment of the week, as I handed my card over to pay for it. The realization that we had eaten for five days (barring a slight blip on my part) on a budget of $15. And here we were paying the equivalent of ten days’ budget.

But that’s the West for you. Disposable income gives us a taste for luxury. Live without it for a time and you gain a sense of perspective.

Further reflections to follow. But right now dinner is calling. Not sure yet exactly what it’s gonna be, but I know it won’t contain rice, lentils, or black beans. Beyond that…

-David

David Wilson graduated from the University of Texas in 2006. Since then he has gone wherever the wind blows him, living in Europe, China, and the States, and traveling extensively throughout the rest of the world. When he’s not on the move, you can find him obsessing over latte art, playing piano, or trying to bleach his hair in the sunshine. Follow him on Twitter.