Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Money, money, money -- how little is (barely) enough?

As we celebrate our country's Independence Day this week, we should take a moment to contemplate how much money a young person requires to really become independent -- no longer having to rely on friends for a place to sleep, on government food stamps to eat, on family for handouts.

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.

2011 HHS Poverty Guidelines
in Family
48 Contiguous
States and D.C.
Alaska Hawaii
1 $10,890 $13,600 $12,540
2  14,710  18,380  16,930
3  18,530  23,160  21,320
4  22,350  27,940  25,710
5  26,170  32,720  30,100
6  29,990  37,500  34,490
7  33,810  42,280  38,880
8  37,630  47,060  43,270
For each additional
person, add
   3,820    4,780    4,390

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.

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