Recently, Sociological Images has had some coverage on what it takes to make ends meet in a household budget. (Here’s an admission – up until I read the book Making Ends Meet in college, I thought the expression was “making ends meat” and was very confused about what people were doing with the ends of meat in order to get by. This is almost as good as my thinking that the Elton John song was “Hold Me Closer Tony Danza”.)
As comes up every so often, people are challenging the notion that the federal poverty level is actually workable in reality. (Here’s the thing, I’m going to disagree with this particular challenge, but recognize that I get that living at 100% of the poverty level is almost unworkable and generally miserable.) This time, the challenge is coming from Wider Opportunities for Women. Before getting into the current issue, here’s the background info that you need to know on the federal poverty guidelines:
Federal poverty guidelines were developed in the 1960s based on the thrifty food basket. The idea was that the average family spends 1/3 of their income on food, so if you could figure out what food a family needed to consume to get by and multiply its cost by 3, you could find a basic level of income needed to get by. (All of you social science people are probably already seeing flaws in this plan, but remember I didn’t make it up.) I remember reading the actual list for the original food basket in a Soc class and it was gross (granted, tastes change over time). (Unfortunately, my search skills seem to be failing me once again and I’m unable to find it.)
Although we may not recognize it in our daily lives, the cost of food has dropped drastically since the federal poverty guidelines were instituted. (But, it seems like food prices may be on the rise again.) So, under current economic conditions, none of us spent 1/3 of our income on food. It seems to make sense that the less money you make, the higher percentage of it that you spend on basic necessities (like food), but there are so many necessities (housing, utilities, transportation, etc.) that there’s no way that 2x what you spend on food is enough to cover all the rest of them.
I guess that was a lot of background…
So, Wider Opportunities for Women is arguing that there’s a big difference between the federal poverty level and what it really takes to get by. They’re calling this the difference between “economic survival” and “economic security”. And, generally, I think that they’re right, but what bothers me is how high their “economic security” numbers are. They say that a single person needs $30,012 to be secure. And, I can tell you that I’ve spent the last few years making a lot less than that. It hasn’t always been fun, but I’ve managed to set a budget and make it work. I’ve managed to save, to put money in my 401(k), and to buy a car (not new, but new to me). I don’t think I’m a particular thrifty person, either. For a family of four, they’re calling for a minimum income of $67,920. What?! That’s all well and good, but it’s definitely middle class, not just a minimum.
You can think that this is just one crazy study that won’t go anywhere. (Although it’s already been picked up in the NY Times, too.) But, it concerns me because of how the numbers might be used in the future. As Wider Opportunities for Women says in their study (The BEST Index), “The BEST Index is a starting point for workers who want to achieve financial stability, and for the policymakers, advocates, researchers and service providers who help workers build security.” I guess I’m concerned that they’re going to push for us to start offering additional government programs and benefits to people making up to these levels instead of the current standard (people normally qualify for benefits at income levels up to 200% or so of federal poverty level, depending on specific benefits and programs.) This is a problem because the median household income in the US is only $44,389 (Take that stat with a grain of salt as it comes from Wikipedia, but the Census website is entirely too time consuming and difficult to navigate). So, where are we going to get money to supplement the income of way more than half of the population?
I realize that this post is trending a little more into political territory than I normally go, but I’m kind of stuck on thinking about it. Coming from Legal Aid, a lot of my friends got by on a lot less than Wider Opportunities for Women’s suggested income levels. I get that a lot of us have great, helpful families and support systems. But, I’m kind of thinking that if we can do it, other people can, too.
MaggieCakes is a blog about culture, social media, and what’s new in the world of Internet culture. Every day (okay, I try for every day) I comb blogs and news outlets for the news about internet culture and social media to bring them to you (with my commentary, of course) here on MaggieCakes. MaggieCakes is hosted by WordPress and often draws upon Slate, Jezebel, The Hair Pin, and SocialTimes for links and inspiration. My post Social Media and the Art of Storytelling was featured on freshly pressed, bringing a while new readership to my blog. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.