There's a guy with a shopping cart who stops by my apartment every day of the week. You can hear him shuffling down the street, opening and closing the big steel boxes that house the rubbish and recycling bins for every building on the block.

Any cans here? Any plastic bottles? He reaches pit-deep into drums of waste, picks out the salvageable vessels and places them in his cart with delicacy not usually afforded to sticky old bottles of lemonade.

A recycled Coke can gets 5 cents in New York. 145 cans an hour earns US$7.25, the equivalent of the federal minimum wage. No canner's pulling that. But when our neighbourhood recycling centre opens each morning, there's a queue of people and shopping carts that stretches out the door. Canning is a job.

In a city of 400,000 millionaires, New York has more than 60,000 homeless people. That's an increase of 13 per cent on last year - many from families who can no longer afford to pay rent.


And on Friday morning while the canners queued to cash in their plastic and tin, a few hundred thousand American fast-food workers walked off the job. They're calling them "McStrikes", walkouts for higher wages. The average American burger-flipper earns just US$8.69 an hour. It's better than lifting cans, but hardly enough to live on.

For those who think this is a big old privileged lib-o whinge, who think there should be no minimum wage at all and that canners should just find something better, consider for a moment the nature of how US society supports its poorest citizens. Either highly profitable companies pay their workers a reasonable wage, or taxpayers foot a higher benefits bill.

President Barack Obama wants the minimum pay to be US$10.10 an hour and says income inequality is "a fundamental threat to the American dream".

Ain't no dream in hustling for cans.