Life has been extraordinairily good for President Obama and his family, and when they exit the White House they will not be "dead broke" as former first lady Hillary Clinton claimed she and her husband were 14 years ago. But it wasn't always that way. In a joint interview with Parade Magazine in advance of their June 23 Working Families Summit, the Obamas opened up about the challenges they experienced as a young family.
In what was news to the first lady, Barack Obama, whose first four jobs paid minimum wage or close to it, recalled working as a waiter in an assisted living facility.
"It was a great job, although the folks there sometimes were cranky because they were on restricted diets. Mr. Smith would want more salt, and you'd say, 'I'm sorry Mr. Smith. You're not allowed,'" the president recalled.
The first lady, during her senior year in high school, worked at a bindery alongside adults who'd spent their entire work lives at the factory.
"Knowing that I, as a 16-year-old, was getting the same income and doing the same work, it gave me respect for those workers," she said. "But it also gave me an understanding that more is needed for folks to be able to cobble together a decent life on minimum wage."
After earning their law degrees, the couple lived on the second floor of the first lady's parents' house. The future president drove a five-year-old car bought for $1,000. They eventually bought a condo with some help on the down payment from Obama's grandmother, but they had to "pinch pennies."
Some may find it difficult to imagine that times were all that tough for them given their educations and earning potential. But as the case with many college graduates today, the burden of their student-loan debt sometimes felt overwhelming. It was, in fact, more than their mortgage payment.
Looking back, the first lady believes she could have negotiated a better salary for herself, but at the time she didn't think about it.
"I think this is one of the challenges women face—we don't think about salary enough," she said. "When I got hired in my firm, I was grateful. There wasn't even a thought of negotiating at all. I thought I was there to do a good job."
Eventually, though, balancing work, motherhood and financial needs was a hurdle she had to overcome, and in her last job before her husband became president, she had a frank conversation with her employer in which she explained that in addition to doing a good job she needed flexibility and a salary commensurate with the quality of her work.
Now, the first lady said, she advises young women to "negotiate hard and know your worth."
But the Obamas also wants their daughters to know what it's like to work hard for not a lot of money.
"We are looking for opportunities for them to feel as if going to work and getting a paycheck is not always fun, not always stimulating, not always fair," the president said. "But that's what most folks go through every single day."
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: Miller Mobley for Parade Magazine, June 2014)