Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Real Cost of Living

Deborah Connolly Youngblood, Ph.D.
Vice President of Research and Innovation at Crittenton Women’s Union. She is a cultural anthropologist.

In 1972, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it took a family of four about $7386 to achieve a “lower” standard of living, $11446 to reach an “intermediate” standard, and $16550 to achieve a higher standard. The budgets assume two healthy children and two healthy parents. The intermediate budget enabled the mother to purchase a new coat every five years, the family to buy a new stove or refrigerator every seventeen years and a used car every four years. It makes no provision for extended illness, unemployment, vacations or a college education for the children. And, it turned out, a majority of families were living at or below this intermediate level, since only 30% of families (of all sizes) had incomes of $15000 or more at that time.

Such a budget analysis provides us with far better information about the real cost of living for families than an abstract figure specifying a “poverty line”.  So what are the figures for today? We no longer have the Bureau of Labor Statistics as a source since the project was cancelled in the early 1980’s during the Ronald Reagan administration. One can only speculate as to why these policy changes were made.

However, we now have a study that updates this analysis for at least one state, Massachusetts. Just released on March 8th 2010 by Crittenton Women’s Union, a Boston based nonprofit, the Massachusetts Economic Independence Index (Mass. Index) is a measure of how much income various family types in Massachusetts require to meet their most basic expenses. 

In 2010, a single parent family with one preschooler and one school-age child requires $61,618 per year ($29.01 per hour) to make ends meet – approximately three and one half times the federal poverty level of $18,310.  A single adult without children working full time and earning the minimum wage ($8 per hour; $16,900 per year) cannot cover his or her basic living expenses. To be economically self-sufficient a single adult in Massachusetts requires an income of $27,084 per year, 60% higher than the minimum wage. 

The Mass. Index is a conservative budget. There is no savings component in the budget, not emergency savings, not savings toward home ownership, no retirement savings, nor savings for adult or child education. There is no money for any restaurant meals and you are assumed to be driving a fully depreciated small sedan for transportation, one with 170,000 miles on it. This is not a security budget but rather a budget that allows a family to get by without requiring public or private assistance. And one that builds in basic family well-being, children under 14 are assumed to require child care supervision and family members are assumed to require health care. Apparently these things are not considered essential in the federal poverty guidelines.

The Mass. Index is based on public federal, state and market rate data. And yet somehow the numbers still feel unreal to people. I presented the Mass. Index to group of front line social service providers and not surprisingly laughter rippled through the room. Case managers earn salaries in the $30,000’s. Many of them are parents, some are single parents. They know that they struggle to make ends meet, even while working hard, demanding jobs. But when you are living it, it can be hard to remember that the issue is structural, not individual. And it can be hard to imagine how things will change for the better. And these are the people who are working. The clients they are serving often live on more like $12,000 a year of public supports. Come to our homeless family shelters and I’ll show you what “getting by” looks like on that income.

The current federal poverty measure, with no corresponding actual cost based budgets, is now almost universally regarded as anachronistic and promotes the widespread idea that people can live on whatever wages we offer them. That somehow they can manage. And people do live at those levels, but at what cost?  The trade offs that people make in trying to survive in poverty have real social costs both to those individual families and to the larger society. Children left unsupervised and unsafe because there is no money for decent child care, health problems unaddressed until they reach crisis levels, housing deteriorating because there is no money to keep it up, and of course crime caused by the desperation of people continually placed in untenable positions that leave them without hope or possibility. And this just skims the surface.

At Crittenton Women’s Union, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting economic independence for low income women, we view daily the real cost of living and the real costs associated with not promoting opportunities for those at the bottom of the income spectrum. We address it with concrete social service programs but also with research and advocacy; research that demonstrates the inconsistencies in our social policies and the requirements if we are going to create pathways out of poverty for the millions of Americans who are trapped there.  Sharing what it really costs to make ends meet is the first step. Promoting policies and opportunities for individuals to be able to get there is the next.


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