Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Why the federal poverty line really doesn't reflect a family's needs.
Poverty – or, more generally speaking, deprivation – is a notoriously difficult thing to define. Whether or not you experience it has to do with how many mouths you have to feed, where your family lives, whether you pay for child care, what your daily transportation options look like, even how society philosophically defines a family's minimum needs to get by. The federal poverty line, on the other hand, doesn't take into account most of these nuances. It is, by definition, a stark line, not a geographically sophisticated matrix.
And for a family of four, right now, it's $23,550.
In an effort to address the concerns of advocates and researchers, the federal government came out two years ago with a Supplemental Poverty Measure (although it isn't used to determine any federal benefits). But even that effort misses dramatic regional variation in costs like child care (the monthly cost for a one-child household in rural Mississippi is $334; in Washington, D.C., it's $1,318).
How, then, do you calculate what it really costs for a family to have some minimum level of security? The Economic Policy Institute offers a more comprehensive calculator, one that was recently updated for 2013 and that now includes 600 communities across the country and six family types. The EPI Family Budget Calculator includes geographically adjusted costs for housing, food, child care, transportation, health care, other necessities, and taxes, in search of what it takes to achieve a "secure yet modest living standard."
The numbers that come out the other end don't look anything like the federal poverty line. How much does a two-parent, two-child household in New York City need? $93,502. The full breakdown of costs by item are shown at right.
In contrast, a full-time job at the federal minimum wage will earn a family with one adult $15,080 a year, not even enough to cover the annual cost of child care in many of these cities.
Below, we've plotted another 40 major metropolitan areas on a map using EPI's calculations for a more realistic annual budget for a family of four. In every one of these cities, making just over the federal poverty line still won't get you very far.
Local Annual Budget for a Family of Four
(scroll over each city for the figures)
Source: Economic Policy Institute
Hat tip WAMU.
Top image from a Community Kitchen food pantry in Harlem. (Mike Segar/Reuters)