Jobs May Not Be Enough for Families' Basic Needs

A new study indicates that many families living on earnings less than the median for their region have experienced critical hardships, such as going without food. Those headed by women are even more at risk.

Peter Edelman

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)-A new study by the Economic Policy Institute is the latest to indicate that, for many families, work just doesn't work-or at least it doesn't work well enough.

The study focused on families with one or two adults and with one to three children under age 12, and found that those families with an adult holding a full-time job often did not have sufficient means to maintain housing, food and medical care.

“Families who are working are still struggling to meet their family budget,” said Heather Boushey at a recent briefing here on the report. An economist, Boushey is one of four authors of the institute's report, “Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families.” The three co-authors are institute researchers Chauna Brocht, Bethney Gundersen and Jared Bernstein.

Rather than rely on government-defined poverty as the standard for measuring economic need in the United States, the researchers tapped surveys that asked families if they were actually able to meet their needs.

Researchers Used Surveys Asking Families If They Could Pay Their Bills

The researchers collected data from two government surveys that asked families whether they worried about having enough food, whether they had missed rent or utility payments, had gone without health insurance or had to leave children alone without supervision-defined as serious hardships. Families were also asked whether they had gone without food or medical care, had been evicted or had utilities disconnected-defined as critical hardships.

The poverty line is currently defined as $17,463 for a two-parent, two-child family. The new study found that the most basic family budgets for two-parent, two-child families actually fall between $27,005 and $52,114, depending on the community of residence. So the median minimum family budget of $33,511 is about twice the national poverty level.

These realistic, basic family budgets-which some researchers and advocates for low-income families want to substitute for the government-defined poverty level-take into account the average cost of housing, food, child care, transportation and other necessities in communities around the country. The budgets do not include meals out, vacations or entertainment beyond one television for the family.

The report's authors expressed surprise at the relatively high number of families with employed parents who were unable to meet their basic needs. Boushey said that the institute's study indicates that 29 percent of families with one to three children under the age of 12 are making less than the basic family budget for their communities, and one-third of those families will experience one or more economic hardships.

Families Headed by Single Mothers More at Risk for Hardships

In addition, families headed by single parents were much more likely to experience hardships, the study indicates. For example, in one government survey 35.9 percent of the single mothers living below the basic family budget experienced one or more critical hardship, while only 21.3 percent of married mothers did. Another government survey reported that 24.5 percent of single mothers living on income below the basic family income experienced a critical hardship, while 16.7 percent of the married mothers had.

Boushey emphasized that she believed that the relatively low wages women receive is responsible for the higher rates of critical hardship.

Peter Edelman, the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services in 1996 who quit in protest when Clinton signed the 1996 welfare bill into law, attended the briefing. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America,” a best-selling book on the life of the working poor, also discussed the report.

Edelman, now a Georgetown University law professor, and Ehrenreich said that the study confirmed what they have seen in the course of their work researching the plight of low-income Americans.

“There's a tremendous gap between wages and incomes and what it really costs to live,” Edelman said, calling that situation “nothing less than a massive case of market failure.”

Ehrenreich, who lived and worked at minimum-wage jobs in three cities while researching her book, said that the study reflected what she learned.

“What I found was that getting by on wages earned from minimum-wage jobs was not really possible. ... This was completely inadequate for rents,” she said. In the face of inadequate wages, she added, many of her fellow workers had to take on second jobs or cut corners by accepting improvised child care arrangements or living in hotels or motels.

“I grew up with blue collar parents who said ‘work hard and you'll get ahead.' For millions of people, that social contract is no longer in force,” Ehrenreich added.

Sarah Stewart Taylor is a free-lance writer in Washington.