If the federal government says your income is above the poverty line, does that mean your family can afford its most basic needs?
The answer is a resounding no, according to a statewide advocacy group for women and children, Delaware-County-based PathWaysPA. Its latest county-by-county assessment, The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Pennsylvania, argues that there is a yawning gap between the federal poverty level and what it really takes for a family to support itself. PathWays uses federal and state data on costs for housing, child care, medical care, food and other basic living expenses to calculate its "Standard" down to the county level.
A single parent raising a pre-schooler and a school-age child in Allegheny County, the report says, would need to make $39,265 a year ... or $18.59 hourly over each 40-hour week ... in order to afford the necessary child care, food, housing and transportation. But under current federal poverty guidelines, so long as this family has an income of $16,600, they are not considered poor and won't qualify for federal programs such as food stamps or cash assistance.
"The reason the self-sufficiency standard is so important is that the poverty level accepted by most experts is not accurate anymore," says Bob Feikema, program director at the Parental Stress Center in East Liberty, which serves mostly low-income and at-risk families "It's outmoded."
Allegheny, Dauphin and Philadelphia counties have the highest cost of living in the state, the report finds. However, to be self-sufficient in any county requires that a single parent with one infant or pre-schooler make at least twice the state's current minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. Even when the new state minimum wage rises to $6.50 per hour next January, a 40-hour work week at the higher minimum will still pay less than half of what it takes to survive, the report shows.
"It's no secret that tens of thousands of families in Pennsylvania have trouble making ends meet," says Ken Regal, co-director of Just Harvest, the South Side-based advocacy group focused on hunger alleviation. "There is a growing gap between the resources that people have and the resources people need in order to make ends meet. The question is what can we do about it?"
PathWaysPA used past self-sufficiency studies to successfully push for a minimum-wage hike in the state. On Sept. 21 Just Harvest and PathWaysPA organized a policy forum to discuss future efforts to help more families toward sufficiency. Jacqui Patterson, PathWaysPA's director of self-sufficiency, says advocates need to keep fighting for educational opportunities for low-income families, especially at a time when the federal government is ramping up work requirements for welfare recipients and requiring them to devote more time to work instead of education and job training.
"Without education, people's wages cannot increase," says Patterson. "It's the number-one reason why people can't become self-sufficient."
Full report: pathwayspa.org/policy/FINAL_PA-2006_full%20report5-15-06.pdf