The federal government defines the poverty line as the threshold below which families or individuals are considered to be lacking the resources to meet the basic needs. The table below indicates the official 2011 poverty line as calculated by the Federal Dept. of Health & Human Services.
|48 Contiguous |
States and D.C.
|For each additional |
SOURCE: Federal Register, Vol. 76, No. 13, January 20, 2011, pp. 3637-3638
Many researchers criticize the way the federal government calculates the poverty line, not least because it fails to differentiate between high- and low-cost regions. While a single person might be able to survive in rural Arkansas on $10,890 per year, such a paltry sum does not go far in a place like New York City. And a family of four living on $22,350? Fugghedaboutit!
The Living Wage -- the geographically-adjusted amount of money a full-time worker would need to earn in order to pay basic living expenses in his or her specific area -- offers a more realistic measure of self-sufficiency. The magnificent Living Wage Calculator at Pennsylvania State University combines statistics from multiple sources to create more nuanced numbers for virtually every community in the United States. The Calculator shows how much a person would need to earn hourly depending on family size; a breakdown of living expenses; and average earnings in different types of jobs. (Even these figures may underestimate true costs. The site notes that "the results a minimum cost threshold that serves as a benchmark, but only that.")
Below is the Living Wage Calculator results for Manhattan (New York County). The Calculator provides separate figures for The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.
Few young people who lack basic education and training are likely to find themselves in jobs that pay enough to cover their basic bills, especially if they also have one or more children to support. Given this bleak reality, it's no mystery why so many drop out of the labor market altogether rather than struggle for low-wage positions that leave them increasingly in the hole.
For youth practitioners, it's not enough simply to get a young person any job. We must also show them the pathways (education, training, apprenticeships, etc.) by which they can move above the living wage threshold into true self-sufficiency, and then help them create a concrete plan to do so. Otherwise, we risk simply setting them up for a life on the margins.