By Jon Anderson
Candy and I have been opinionating back and forth on low-income citizens and how their access to safe and affordable housing is a means to promote economic upwards mobility. After all, if the poor are less poor, they will live richer lives (by any definition) and contribute more to society.
Unlike the rich who sequester money in intangible investments or various savings schemes, when the poor have more money, they spend it – because they need to. This creates a cycle that reverberates throughout the larger economy. If the poor buy more, manufacturers must make more which means hiring more people which in turn creates more people with money to spend, and so on, and so on. It’s exactly like the recession when governments were screaming for money because tax revenues took such a hit. Once people were put back to work, tax revenues rose, and in some states like Texas, overflowed.
In fact, recessions in general would be rarer and less dramatic if companies were forced to keep workers on the payroll or if unemployment benefits paid close to salary levels. As it is, recessions create a domino effect where one company dumps workers and then its suppliers dump workers because they’re not getting orders – and on and on. Call it trickle-back economics.
Personally, I spent nearly three years unemployed during the telecom meltdown that sent 500,000 skilled workers out on the streets early in the millennium. Desperate, I was open to anything and willing to uproot my life and leave my partner for any job. In the end, I was required to move to another state which led to the dissolution of my relationship. And compared to many, I was lucky.
For part of that time, I collected unemployment benefits that paid me the maximum $1,600 per month, a tiny fraction of my former salary. (Let me tell you, swallowing my pride and taking unemployment was one of the hardest things I’ve done – even though I’d paid into it for years. It felt like a stigmatizing failure.) All that check did was slow the eventual evaporation of a three-year “emergency fund.” I tell you this because $1,600 per month is more than the minimum wage in America and it was crippling even with a free place to live and extensive savings. Before you groan, this column isn’t about the battle for living wages, it’s about documenting and understanding how much it takes to live as a human being in Dallas. (Spoiler alert: it’s not the current minimum wage.)
- How many of us have seen some crapbox car huffing around town or broken-down, obviously in need of serious repairs and thought, “Why don’t they fix that or buy another car?” The answer is simple, they chose to eat or pay the rent instead.
- How many of us have driven by dilapidated homes, car doors locked, and thought, “Why’d anyone live here?” The answer is simple, it’s all they can afford.
- Equally tone-deaf on my trip to Marrakech were tourists asking how everyone “stays so thin,” and “lives without air conditioning in the (100+-degree) heat?” The answer is simple, the third-world offers little choice.
There are several measurements of what constitutes poverty. There are the federal “poverty line” measurements that are quoted everywhere and reveal little. The metric was created in 1963 and is only updated based on annual federal inflation numbers while the calculation itself remains unchanged. These poverty metrics also fail because they treat New York City and Dallas the same because there are only three buckets – 48 contiguous states (and DC), Hawaii and Alaska. To address some of the disparity, the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) was created in 2011 to address some of the regional differences in costs for housing and such – but it’s not all-encompassing and still only a measurement of abject poverty.
Dallas is “lucky” because for 2013, the most recent year of data, Texas wasn’t terribly off from the federal numbers – although the additional $1,250 the SPM allots for a nuclear family of two-adults and two-children would surely be welcomed by these families. (An extra $100/month on top of the ~$2,000/month poverty level)
- Federal poverty level: 2 adults /2 child: $24,250
- Supplemental Poverty Measure for Dallas: $25,500
This month (August 2015), the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) updated their Family Budget Calculator which factors in more local data and family types into their research. It covers 618 communities and 10 different family structures (one or two adults with between zero and three children). It also adds local metrics for child care, healthcare and “other necessities” (which includes things like school supplies, telephone, clothing, furniture, etc.)
Also, the Family Budget Calculator is not setup to measure the bare minimum to sustain life as poverty calculators do, but rather it estimates the costs to live “a secure yet modest living standard.” In other words, living in “structurally safe, and sanitary rental housing” within communities with, for example, local big-chain grocery stores and sleeping in bedrooms unafraid of stray gunfire or rodents. Using this measurement, the story becomes more truthful about what a modest life costs.
The EPI’s measurement for two-adults and two-children living in Dallas is $61,150 per year ($5,096/month) – after taxes. That’s nearly 2.5 times the amount calculated by the other measures. It’s also two adults working full-time and making double the minimum wage — $14.50/hour. You’re thinking nawwwww, that can’t be. Here’s the breakdown:
As you can see, this isn’t the budget for the life of Riley. Just $913 budgeted for rent on a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment. Childcare is estimated to cost nearly as much as rent but may be mitigated over time depending on the children’s age, but it’s still a big number. “Food” is defined as being based on the Department of Agriculture’s “low-cost plan” with nearly all meals made at home and having a goal of achieving “nutritionally adequate diets.” Healthcare costs may seem high, but the majority working in this income bracket don’t have the healthcare benefits many CandysDirt.com readers take for granted. “Other Necessities” may also look oversized at first, but factor in a four-person cell phone contract, school supplies, clothes for growing children, cleaning supplies and the like, and it’s suddenly not so preposterous, is it? “Taxes” include sales taxes and other invisible taxes as well as any federal taxes.
Factor in a single parent household and the picture becomes more grim. Losing a parent drops the income required by $7,658, because of lowered food, healthcare costs and other costs, but does nothing for “fixed” costs like housing and child care. But it also drops a full adult salary. The remaining parent needs a job paying $25.72 per hour or 3.5 times the minimum wage. A black and white illustration of why single-parent households are so difficult.
To top it off, what all of these numbers miss are savings – emergency funds, college funds, retirement funds. The results are families living at best paycheck-to-paycheck and probably a paycheck or two behind. (Payday and title loans with usurious interest rates up to 730 percent were designed to suck the life out of people like this.) It means kids know college is impossible without full-boat scholarships so many don’t even try. It equates to parents ill-equipped to teach their children how to break the poverty cycle. It means parents face a no-retirement retirement, working until their last breath. A rosy picture for none and a recipe for the multi-generational poverty that exists today.
And heaven forbid you fall off the track and become homeless. Without access to simple things like bathing facilities, clean clothes and all the trappings of “work,” maintaining a job is a struggle or, if unemployment led to the homelessness, makes successful interviewing unimaginably hard. And saving to get the money needed for security deposits and such to get back into housing is arduous. The toll this takes on children is unimaginable.
The current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour / $290 per week / $15,080 per year assuming no vacation or holiday’s off (at this rate, who could afford a holiday?). It’s also hourly, grinding work that’s at once critical and valueless.
Stiffing the Poor Because We Can
This morning my housecleaner told me why she couldn’t make it last time. I use a service and their communication skills are limited at best. Turns out she’d gone to her previous appointment and there was no key waiting as usual at the desk of the apartment complex – they’d seemingly lost it. She waited around for 90-minutes before finally the client told her to drive over to her office and get her key so she could clean and then return the key. What should have taken 90-120 minutes took double that time. Did the housecleaner get more money for that? No. Did she lose money, never to be recouped, for not cleaning my home? Yes. That’s an example of an employer and client who don’t value this housecleaner’s time.
I’d make a bad housecleaner (aside from the fact I’m bad enough I hire one to do mine) because I’d operate on the date rule … 15-minutes late and I walk. I sure wouldn’t sit there for 90-minutes without pay waiting for someone to diddle-up a key. (Now I say I wouldn’t wait, but if I REALLY needed that job, probably like my housecleaner, I’d do what I had to do to keep it, which is what employers count on.) The service should have paid the cleaner for the time and billed the customer. After all, if you no-show a hotel, you get charged. Why should a human being expect less respect than a hotel room?
At the end of the day remember, 40-percent of American households earn less than $35,700 per year. Only 23.4% of low-income families receive any housing assistance from Washington. Using the Economic Policy Institute’s calculator and what we likely already know deep in our gut about the poor, that’s 40-percent of Dallas citizens who can’t live like humans.
Remember: Do you have an HOA story to tell? A little high-rise history? Realtors, want to feature a listing in need of renovation or one that’s complete with flying colors? How about hosting a Candy’s Dirt Staff Meeting? Shoot Jon an email. Marriage proposals accepted (they’re legal)! firstname.lastname@example.org