There is a big difference—as anyone who has found themselves in such a situation can surely attest—between living in poverty or even above the poverty line and having enough to live with more than a modicum of dignity, which is roughly defined as a “living wage.” Being above the poverty line in America does not equate to being free of any or all of the problems or ills of poverty; it only means that the U.S. government does not count you as officially poor, particularly as it applies to federal and state financial aid programs.
Money is a big deal, and it becomes a bigger deal–looming large—when you don’t have enough to live. Money is a sexy subject, but only when people have lots of it. When people have little, it loses its sex appeal. Despite the seeming contradiction, there is something worth investigating: what it means to live is important to flesh out; it is not the same as what it takes to survive. An article (“What a Living Wage Actually Means; June 5, 2019), in The New York Times, by Eric Ravenscraft, helps to explain the difference:
The term “living wage” gets thrown around enough by politicians and advocacy groups that the definition can get muddy. The legal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 per hour, though some states and cities like New York City and Seattle are experimenting with minimums as high as $15 an hour. But are these wages enough to live on? And what is a living wage, anyway?
The minimum wage roughly meshes with federal poverty guidelines. According to the guidelines, a two-person household with a total annual income below $16,910 is considered to be living in poverty. To clear the poverty line, one of those two people would have to make $8.13 an hour or more. At least 17 states have minimum wages higher than that. The $15-per-hour minimum wage in New York City, for example, translates to an annual income of $31,200, which is almost twice the federal poverty level for a household of two.
However, anyone living in New York City can tell you how laughably low $32,000 per year is for a single-income household. Likewise, $17,000 may be a poverty-level wage in much of the country, but that doesn’t mean $18,000 is enough to get by. This flaw in the federal poverty guidelines was first described by the woman who developed them, Mollie Orshansky.
In 1965, shortly before the United States government adopted the guidelines Ms. Orshansky wrote: “There is not, and indeed in a rapidly changing pluralistic society there cannot be, one standard universally accepted and uniformly applicable by which it can be decided who is poor. … If it is not possible to state unequivocally ‘how much is enough,’ it should be possible to assert with confidence how much, on an average, is too little.”For various reasons, many of which have been discussed on this site, there are many people in America who have and live on too little [official poverty rate: 12.7 percent; 39.7 million persons; yes, that is a lot of people]. To have an honest discussion on the matter, it is important to determine and agree on what is too little and what a living wage is, which varies from region to region in the United States. The article says: “In 2004, Amy Glasmeier, now a professor of economic geography and regional planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed the Living Wage Calculator.”
The calculator is a good tool to find out whether you make enough money to support yourself and your family depending on where you live in America. It is a calculator of basics. It only takes into account housing, food and transportation; it does not take into account extras like vacations, eating out, buying gifts, savings, etc., things that were once considered part of a middle-class life. It is no surprise that costs for basics have gone up, and they continue to rise.
Middle class is a whole other matter and another step up from the living wage, although in some regions, it is only a small step up, since the cost of living is so high and wages have not risen sufficiently to keep up. (The Canadian city of Toronto, where I reside—one of the most expensive cities in North America, largely due to high housing costs—suffers from this syndrome or, rather, malaise.) Nevertheless, with this calculator, you can find out not only whether you are living, but you can also find out using the Pew Research Calculator how far you are from (or above) middle class, if that is something that you aspire to.
Perhaps one day, the idea of economic security will become the norm in America and in Canada, as well, as the idea of the living wage takes on greater importance among sociologists, economists and other social thinkers and influencers, who might eventually move political policy in a more positive direction. For now, being part of the middle class might make you feel less poor—and part of a large cohort of like-minded individuals and families, comprising half of all American adults. For many, middle class is now the American Dream. The biggest fear is not being part of it.
You can read the complete article at [NYT].