What It Really Takes to Live in Poverty

The U.S. Census Bureau has announced that the poverty rate declined in 2013, falling from 15% of Americans to 14.5%. This is the first decline since 2006.

Pop the cork on the champagne, boys! This means that only 45.3 million Americans were living at or below the poverty line, which was an annual income of $23,834 last year ($24,375 in 2014 dollars) for a family of four.

So what does it take to live in poverty? A lot of hard work for that four-member family, especially if they're being paid the current minimum wage. To make $23,834 at $7.25/hour takes about 3,287.5 hours per year. Now, since most minimum-wage jobs don't include things like sick leave, vacations and other things that would only be wasted on the poor, the calculations are easy.

3,287.5 hours per year equals about 63.25 hours per week. Since it's tough enough to get an employer to commit to 40 hours per week for hourly workers, overtime probably isn't a factor. So either one adult in the family has to work two jobs or there must be two wage-earners. The single-breadwinner approach works out to 8 hours per day, seven days a week, every week and then pick up one more four-hour shift at the second job. Once again, there's no room for time lost due to illness.

The benefit is that one adult is free to take care of the home and children. This is the "Leave It To Beaver" world of the poor. No high heels and no pearls, but someone is there when the kids get out of school, which experts tell us is a good thing. The more reasonable alternative is both parents work and try to adjust their schedules to maximize their family time.

Don't forget, this is all to make the maximum under the federal poverty guidelines. A lot of those 45 million-plus people don't make that much. Of course, as we all know from listening to various pundits and politicians, these are the lazy sponges that soak up government assistance in the form of SNAP, WIC, Earned Income Tax Credits and other such examples of federal waste. And they don't even pay income tax.

Sorry, maybe it's just my flawed perceptions, but two people busting their butts just to make enough to be poor don't sound very lazy.

But let's say this is the "Leave It To Beaver" world with one parent employed, one stay-at-home parent and a couple of kids, call them, oh, Theodore and Wallace. Ward or June has one job working 40 hours a week and let's toss in a two-week vacation, while we're at it.

How much does Ward or June need to make enough to live in gentle poverty in modern America? $11.92 an hour. This is well beyond the proposed $10.10 minimum wage that some have solemnly predicted would cause the collapse of Western civilization and lead to mass joblessness.

But wait! That $11.92/hour would mean that many people could stop having to work two jobs. Those jobs would still need to be done, so other people would be needed to fill them. These new hires would now have money and could become consumers, the real job creators in our economy.

Of course, $15.00/hour sounds good, too. People who work as hard as many minimum wage earners should be able to see something beyond the bare necessities.

And to those who moan about how raising the minimum wage to a livable level would make prices skyrocket, I would point out that the average price of a Big Mac has risen 30% since the last time the minimum wage was raised. The employees didn't get raises but somebody's making more money somewhere up the chain. And they're probably not buying enough Big Macs to cover it. Let's see what happens if we pay the folks that make them enough to buy them (McDonald's employee discounts apply only to food purchased by the employee for their own consumption during breaks).


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