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07.02.08

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Phaedra

Reality Check : According to Insight's Self-Sufficiency Standard, an adult with two small children needs to make $58,000 a year to get by in Santa Cruz.

Insufficient Funds

Here's what it really costs to live in Santa Cruz County--and no, minimum wage doesn't cut it.

By Paul Wagner


Get real. That's what any Californian who's stumbled across the so-called federal "poverty guidelines," which supposedly tell what it costs to live minimally in our state, usually mutters when seeing the figures. And for good reason. How far through a year, after all, can $10,400 carry a single person in a place like Santa Cruz County? How far can $21,200 go for a family of four?

Not very. Yet there they are, those figures, and the feds use them to qualify or disqualify Americans in all 48 contiguous United States (with a few more bucks tacked on for those living Alaska and Hawaii) to calculate everything from housing eligibility to food stamp levels to qualifying income levels for work-training programs--whether or not they represent daily reality. So Oakland-based Insight, the Center for Economic Community Development, decided to pencil out some real figures. In May, it released its California Family Economic Self-Sufficiency Standard--a realistic index to what it costs to live in California, calculated county by county.

According to Insight's calculations, residing in Santa Cruz County costs $28,408 for an individual, $71,947 for a family of four (two adults, two children) and between $19,528 and $30,080 (depending on renter/owner and active mortgage/paid mortgage status) for elders 65 and older.The single parent of an infant and a toddler needs to make about $58,000 a year to make ends meet, or roughly $27 an hour at full time, according to Insight. (The report notes that a person working three full-time jobs at minimum wage would pull down $49,920--almost enough to take care of business and feed the children too.)

Now that sounds real.

The Great Disconnect
How did the federal government's poverty guidelines come to differ so much from actual family needs? It began innocently enough, courtesy of one ambitious and apparently highly organized person in the Social Security Administration, a Ms. Mollie Orshansky, who decided it was time--back in the 1960s--to do some figurin'.

Orshansky hoofed it over to the Agriculture Department, got the stats on how much a diet "designed for temporary or emergency use when funds are low" would cost, looked at the fact that families at the time spent around a third of their incomes on food, and multiplied by three. Voilą! Federal poverty guidelines.

And the feds have stubbornly continued to calculate thusly ever since. Never mind that "as early as November 1965, Social Security Administration policymakers and analysts began to express concern," according to an article on the Department of Health and Human Services' website. Nope; despite that concern, and numerous reinvestigations of that original figuring over the decades, the poverty definition has remained unchanged. Nobody, it turns out, wanted to touch the gold standard, regardless of cracks or tarnish.

Until Insight came along. Oddly enough, what Insight and its partners did to get actual figures was nothing megasurveyish or focus-group-y, let alone involving multivariate regression analyses.

What it did, rather, was nab easily available federal cost figures. Solid ones, like HUD's housing costs survey, along with some calculations of fair market rents and the Department of Education samplings of child care costs. And the USDA's current low-cost food plan. Then it rounded those out with the U.S. Census' estimate of transportation costs and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey's estimate of family medical costs and added them up.

Voilą! The Family Standard. Also known, since there's an Elderly Standard too, as the Self-Sufficiency Standard. Established not only for 36 states but also for the individual counties within them. A standard designed, says Insight's communications director Lori Warren, "to measure what families really need to survive in today's economy."

When Warren uses the word "survive," though, she's not talking absolutely minimal like Orshansky was. "Our position as an organization is that we want not just poverty but economic security to keep people stable."

Why?

Because given today's rollercoaster month-to-month costs, "having people just hovering above poverty is not what we want."

There's another downside to using unrealistic figures, too, points out Insight's project researcher Jennie Chung: when members of the public hear that some funded program is available to those whose income is "two or three times the federal poverty level," they often assume that rapaciously rich neighbors are getting away with something when they're actually in significant struggle. For that reason, Chung points out, "We would rather use some percentage of the self-sufficiency standard."

Seeing someone at half of self-sufficiency income is a way different perspective. And that in turn can "help influence policymakers."That, too, sounds real--for a change.

Figures for every California county, and for 156 types of family constellation and a number of elderly single and family groups, are available at www.insightcced.org.


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