Poverty Widespread in Pennsylvania, New Report Finds
New report shows families well above official poverty line are struggling
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One in Four Pennsylvania Families with Young Children Can't Afford BasicsA surprising 535,000 Pennsylvanians live in working families that have one to three children under age 12 and do not earn enough to pay for basic necessities such as food, housing, child care and health care. Even in this period of national prosperity, that is 24 percent of such families, roughly one out of every four.
"Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families", released yesterday by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC and analyzed by Pennsylvania’s Keystone Research Center, shows that the majority of families that can’t afford basic necessities are two parent families, often with one or more workers, and for the most part earning incomes above the official federal poverty level.
The report examines the cost of living in every community nationwide and determines separate basic family budgets for each community.
In Pennsylvania, basic family budgets for a two-parent, two-child family range from $33,193 in Erie, to $39,312 in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. In all of Pennsylvania’s communities, two-parent two-child family budgets are within range of the national median of $33,511, which is roughly twice the official federal poverty line of $17,463 for such a family.
"The official poverty line is a grossly outdated yardstick of what’s needed to keep a family afloat, as this report powerfully shows," says Stephen Herzenberg, Executive Director of the Keystone Research Center. "Families need to be well above the poverty line to cover the cost of the basics." Nationally, two-and-half times more families fall below basic family budget levels than below the federal poverty line, according to EPI.
The report documents the kinds of hardships faced by these low-income families
Nearly one-third of families with incomes below twice the poverty threshold -- a close proxy for the basic family budget level -- faced at least one "critical hardship," such as going without food, getting evicted or having to "double up" in housing with another family, or not having access to medical care during an acute illness.Of families with incomes below basic budget levels,
Nearly three-quarters of families below twice the poverty threshold faced at least one "serious hardship," like worrying about food, failing to pay rent, using the emergency room as their main source of health care, having the telephone disconnected, or having children in inadequate child care arrangements.
Food insufficiency is the most common hardship. Eighteen percent of families below twice the poverty line missed meals involuntarily. Forty percent worried about having enough food to keep from going hungry. For single-parent families, food insecurities were experienced at rates of 23 percent and 57 percent, respectively.
"Our safety net is full of holes," says KRC Research Fellow David Bradley. "We phase working families out of supports for health care, child care, housing and other basic necessities well before they can afford them on their own."
- half include a parent who works full-time;
- nearly 60 percent are two-parent families;
- more than three-quarters are headed by a worker with a high school degree or more; nearly half are headed by a worker over the age of thirty; and
- about one-third live in the suburbs, one-third live in cities, and one-third live in rural areas.
"Work alone doesn’t ensure a decent standard of living," said Heather Boushey, an EPI economist and lead author of the study. "This report provides strong evidence of the need for policies that strengthen our social safety net and boost wages."
The EPI report includes policy proposals for raising the earnings of low-income and poor families, including a minimum wage hike, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, more comprehensive job training programs, and stronger pay equity policies that help to ensure that women are paid as much as men.
Policies to boost income, however, are only part of a plan to ensure that all American families can afford a safe and decent standard of living, according to the report. Families that earn enough income to be ineligible for Medicaid, for example, are still often unable to afford private health insurance. These experiences indicate that Americans at all income levels need a stronger social safety net, including:
"Even high school graduates working full time may not be able to support a family," said Boushey. "If the American Dream is to become a reality for all Americans, then there is a role for government in helping working families meet their basic needs."
Universal health insurance. Families that lack private health insurance are far more likely to face other kinds of hardships. They are over twice as likely to miss meals and fail to pay housing or utility bills, even after accounting for income. The problem becomes a cycle when, for example, poor nutrition leads to other health problems.
Federally funded child care for children of all ages. Families at all income levels have a hard time finding day care centers with the adult-to-child ratio recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In 49 states, child care costs are greater than the tuition to public colleges.
Affordable housing and economic development. Affordable homes must be closer to work. One way to accomplish this is through "transit lead development," where mixed-use, high-density developments are built near transit hubs. Increased funds for affordable housing should also be made available, since national housing policy is biased in favor of middle-income homeowners.
The Keystone Research Center is a Harrisburg-based research and policy center dedicated to improving economic performance and economic opportunity in Pennsylvania.
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