Study shows financial struggle to 'get by'

By Daniel Silliman


For a single mother with a school-age child in Clayton and Henry counties, just "getting by" means earning wages considerably above the federal poverty line, a new study shows.

The study, done by a Diana M. Pearce, a professor from the University of Washington in Seattle, found that "more and more families are finding they are unable to stretch their wares to meet the cost of basic necessities. Many of these families are not deemed 'poor' by the federal poverty measure, yet they lack enough income to meet the rising costs of food, housing, transportation, health care, and other essentials."

According to some in the state, who are familiar with the study, and who have worked with the economic issues, the families failing self-sufficiency help fray society.

"You've got this gap," said Cindia Cameron, an Atlanta organizing director for 9to5, a national association of working women. "If your wage is $7 an hour and what your basic family budget cost is $12 an hour, what do you do? What do you think people do? People skimp. They're smart and economical, but they also skip things they really need -- food, health care, child care. Kids go to school hungry, sick and scared. It really erodes the fabric of our communities."

Cameron said most of Georgia's social problems -- from struggling schools, to rising crime rates, to gangs -- can be attributed to over-worked adults. Falling short of self-sufficiency is a problem that multiplies, spreading to everything.

"All the parents are working all the time in two jobs," Cameron said. "And what happens when people do everything they know how to do, and they still don't succeed? They turn it in on themselves and they feel like failures, and then you see it in civic engagement. People lose hope and they lose self-confidence. That's exactly what we don't want."

Using the standard of "self-sufficiency," what it costs to live without assistance, the report calculates a single mother in Clayton County needs to earn about $694 per week, $36,058 a year. A single mother in Henry County, according to the report, needs $708.80 a week, and $36,858 a year.

The self-sufficient single mother, working only 40 hours a week, needs to make more than $17 an hour, according to the study.

That's still less than it takes in the northern parts of the metro area, where the necessary wage is calculated at almost $19 an hour.

Atlanta also is relatively affordable, when compared with other major American cities. The study places Boston as the least affordable city, followed by Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Atlanta ranks 10th on the list.

But, the gap is still very real, even in fairly affordable Atlanta.

"While Atlanta is less expensive than some of the places with which it has been compared," Pearce wrote in the report, "[self-sufficiency] still requires hourly wages that are well above the federal minimum wage."

The 110-page report is useful, because it doesn't just look at the minimum wage and what people need to earn to get by, according to some involved with the study.

"This is a very complex issue, and it takes a lot of different interventions and a lot of different policy solutions to approach this," said Sarah Beth Gehl, deputy director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a non-profit and non-partisan think tank, which supported the study's publication.

The study starts by shifting the focus from "poverty" to "self-sufficiency," expanding the things considered, and ends by outlining strategies to "close the income gap," by reducing costs or raising incomes.

"The challenge facing Georgia," Pearce wrote, "is to determine how to make it possible for low-income households to become economically self-sufficient. The rising costs of housing, child care and health care, the lack of education and skills, welfare time limits, and restrictions on training and education all add to the problems faced by many parents seeking self-sufficiency."

The full study is available online at www.GBPI.org.