How much is enough

It’s a fundamental question, whether the subject is welfare reform, affordable housing, or the minimum wage, but it rarely gets answered to anyone’s satisfaction: How much money does a family need to support itself in Massachusetts? Usually people just guess.

A recent study by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union attempts to do away with the guesswork. The Boston-based group has calculated the minimum income that different types of families must earn to make it in different parts of the state. The “self-sufficiency standards” measure the amount of money required to meet basic needs without public or private subsidies, such as public housing, food stamps, or free babysitting by a friend or relative. “They’re very eye-opening figures,” says contributing author Laura Henze Russell, director of the organization’s Work and Family Resource Center.

According to the research, a single person in Boston working full-time must earn $7.52 per hour, or $15,642 a year, to survive without government assistance. Add just one preschool-age child to the family, however, and the adult must earn more than twice as much to pay the bills–$15.28 per hour, or $31,782 per year–primarily because of the added cost of child care and a larger apartment. Add a second child (this one school-age), and the parent needs $18.54 per hour, or $38,563 per year.

By contrast, in the rural Berkshires, where housing and child care cost less, people can get by on less money, the study found. A single adult needs to make $6.16 per hour, or $12,813 a year, while the parent of a preschooler needs to earn $11.68 per hour, or $24,294 a year. A single parent with two children must earn $13.98 per hour, or $29,078 a year, according to the study.

A new study shows what it takes to get by without government help.

The income standards were developed using a methodology created by Diana Pearce, former director of the Women and Poverty Project at Wider Opportunities for Women, a Washington, D.C.-based group that works to help women achieve economic independence. Massachusetts is one of eight states WOW selected to participate in a national effort to promote family self-sufficiency. The Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, a nonprofit group that runs programs and supports public policies to expand economic, social, and educational opportunities for women, is leading the Massachusetts project.

The study includes self-sufficiency standards for 40 geographic regions of the state and 70 types of families (based on the number of parents and the number and age of the children). Each family’s budget is assumed to include the cost of rent and utilities, child care, food, transportation, health care, and taxes, as well as “miscellaneous” expenses such as clothing and household supplies. The cost figures come from federal and state sources, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, state market surveys of child care costs, and national consumer price surveys.

The given incomes provide for a lifestyle that is “not luxurious or even comfortable,” the report says. “Self-sufficiency means maintaining a decent standard of living and not having to choose between basic necessities.” For example, budgets provide for an apartment that meets safety codes and is not overcrowded, but do not allow for major purchases, such as a car, or long-term financial needs, such as retirement.

Project organizers hope the information will be useful on many fronts: from social service agencies developing education and training programs that help people qualify for jobs that pay a “self-sufficiency” wage to policy-makers deciding tax policy, housing subsidies, economic development plans, and more. Predictably, given the Union’s progressive leanings, the report calls for an increase in spending to benefit low-income families, ranging from an increase in the minimum wage to the expansion of affordable housing and child care opportunities.

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The Union also hopes to become part of the debate over new time limits for welfare benefits, which go into effect Dec. 1. The report contends that people coming off welfare may need other types of subsidies until they have the education and training to earn enough to be self-sufficient.

The point is illustrated in the study with a hypothetical Worcester family of three–a single parent with a preschooler and a school-age child. The graph below shows that the family’s self-sufficiency standard of $35,460 is more than three times as much as the family could get from welfare benefits, food stamps, and the small cash allowance that make up the welfare package ($10,272). It is also more than twice as much as the adult could earn from working full-time at the minimum wage and benefiting from state and federal earned income tax credits for low-income families ($14,107).