Poverty report: What's the cost of living?
If you're not barefoot and living in a mud hut, by some people's calculations, forget it; you're not really poor. But poverty, like wealth, is a relative concept that varies by context. In one place, someone who has a lot of goats is wealthy, but I don't think that works in Seattle, for instance.
Seattle Times staff columnist
If you're not barefoot and living in a mud hut, by some people's calculations, forget it; you're not really poor.
But poverty, like wealth, is a relative concept that varies by context. In one place, someone who has a lot of goats is wealthy, but I don't think that works in Seattle, for instance.
For non-theoretical, actual people, and for making public policy, it's important to know what it costs to live self-sufficiently where you are.
Seattle is different from Bellevue, which is different from Kent. And there is a measure of that. It's called the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Washington State 2011, a report written by Diana Pearce, director of the Center for Women's Welfare at the University of Washington School of Social Work.
Pearce found that it's getting harder for working people to meet their needs because wages are stagnant while costs keep going up.
The report looks at what it costs for housing, food, child care, transportation, taxes ... and it adjusts those costs for different kinds of families and for each area of the state.
That degree of detail makes the numbers more meaningful and useful than broader measures.
The report (seati.ms/qEBJuu) also excludes anything that could remotely be called a frill, like the cost of coffee, tea or soda, or owning a telephone or subscribing to cable. It covers only very basic expenses.
A single parent with a preschooler and a school-age child in Seattle needs to earn $56,904 a year.
In East King County, the same family would need $65,690 a year, the highest self-sufficiency cost in the state. The lowest, Wahkiakum County, is $32,997.
A lot of working people, of course, don't make even that much.
Washington's minimum wage is the highest in the nation, and it is scheduled to go up Jan. 1 to $9.04 an hour.
According to the report, at the new level, that three-person family would have enough income to cover less than half its living expenses.
All of the calculations in the study are made assuming a person has no help, public or private.
But we try as a society to take low incomes into account. We have social programs and tax adjustments because there should be a minimum standard for life in America, and because helping families survive economically ultimately makes our communities better. The child who gets sound nutrition and a good start in school is more likely to grow up to be a productive adult than the child who lacks those basics.
I say we try to maintain an American standard, but actually Americans have always been divided about whether to help each other, and the divide is getting wider as more people need a hand.
It makes sense to debate how much to help and how to do so efficiently, but it seems to me both cruel and shortsighted to not provide adequate support to working families, such as helping people stay in their homes or afford high-quality child care.
We are becoming less and less a common people.
The income gap between the richest Americans and the rest of us, already at record levels, keeps growing. The Social Security Administration announced just last week that the number of people who make more than $1 million a year has grown over the past two years. In the same period, employment went down.
All the data in the UW study was about people who have jobs. Too many people aren't that fortunate.
And yet efforts to spur hiring get stuck in the political mud of a presidential-election cycle. Are we waiting to see soup lines and tar-paper shacks?
We should be better than that. It's in all of our longterm interests to be better than that.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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