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NPR's Robert Siegel Needs a Reality Check

No, Robert, nowhere in the country can you live on bank tellers' wages—$11 an hour, or $22,000 per year.

Photo Credit: Paul Cowan/


If anyone still suspects that National Public Radio has a consistently liberal bias, listen to Robert Siegel's  interview with Brigid Flaherty, organizing director for the Alliance for a Greater New York, a labor advocacy group, on Wednesday's All Things Considered.

The topic was the poverty-level wages paid to bank tellers and other employees in the bottom half of the banking industry. Siegel reminded listeners that U.S. taxpayers bailed out the financial industry when many of the nation's largest banks teetered on the brink of collapse. He also pointed out that despite the taxpayer subsidies, Wall Street banks nevertheless paid their top executives huge salaries and bonuses.

Then Siegel asked Flaherty about a new study conducted by economists at the University of California at Berkeley's Labor Center on behalf of a group called the Committee for Better Banks. Flaherty explained that in New York state, one out of three bank tellers are receiving some form of public assistance -- such as food stamps and Medicaid -- because their wages are so low. Siegel asked Flaherty: "How much do, say, bank tellers in New York City make?" Flaherty responded: "So on average, they make around $11 an hour, which yearly comes out to about $14,000 a year."

"That's very tough to live with in New York City," Siegel responded. "You might be able to make ends meet, though, in some other parts of the country on that."

It is at this point that it becomes clear that Robert Siegel is totally out of touch with the realities of living in America.

A bank teller who earns $11 an hour and works full time (40 hours/week, 50 weeks/year) actually makes $22,000 a year -- considerably more than Flaherty's calculation. So let's test Siegel's hypothesis and see if $22,000 is enough to make ends meet in different parts of the country.

Fortunately, there are lots of studies documenting what it costs to live in different parts of the country. For example, a family with one parent, one pre-school child and one school-age child in Fresno County, California -- an inland area much different than the expensive San Francisco and Los Angeles coastal areas -- needs $51,865 a year to make ends meet. In rural Kern County, the "self-sufficiency" budget for that same family is $48,246. In Los Angeles County, it is $64,480. These calculations come from the  Center for Community Economic Development and include bare-bones no-frills expenses for housing, food, transportation, and other essentials.

You think that California -- even its least expensive areas -- may be off the charts compared with other regions? Let's look elsewhere.

In Colorado, the amount needed to be economically self-sufficient varies from $30,089 annually in Kit Carson County to $66,607 in Pitkin County. In Maryland, the self-sufficiency budget ranges from $30,291 in Garrett County to $77,933 in Montgomery County. In  Peoria County in central Illinois -- a relatively low-cost area -- that family needs $36,134 to keep a roof over their heads and make ends meet. In  Arizona, they would need $38,624 in the least expensive county (La Paz) and $51,115 in Maricopa County, the state's most expensive.

According to this year's  Out of Reach report, published by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in no county in the entire country can someone who works full-time and earns $11 an hour afford a decent apartment. In fact, the study found, the typical "housing wage" in the United States -- what a family needs to make in order to afford an apartment at the HUD estimated Fair Market Rent (FMR), while spending no more than 30% of income on housing costs -- is $18.79. This figure varies in different parts of the country. But even in Mississippi, where the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment is only $697, a family must earn $27,898 annually ($13.41 an hour) to afford that rent.

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