Regional study shows high cost of survival

Posted: June 18, 2008

A Philadelphia family of four needs to make more than $50,000 a year just to survive, according to a study released on June 18.

Two adults with one preschooler and one school-age child have to take in $53,611 annually to live on a bare-bones budget - that is, to meet their needs without public assistance or help from relatives and friends. A family of one parent and one preschooler needs $36,208 annually.

The fact is that 56 percent - or 170,164 - of families of all sizes in Philadelphia earn less than $50,000 a year, U.S. census figures show.

All this comes from a new set of calculations of what it costs to sustain a family in the Philadelphia region, part of what's known as the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Pennsylvania (SSSP).

The standard is considered more accurate and detailed than the federal poverty level, the traditional gauge of how much money a family needs to live, which has been long been criticized for failing to take a full measure of the costs of living.

The University of Washington's School of Social Work prepared the report for PathWays PA, an advocacy group based in Holmes, Delaware County, that provides services for women and children. PathWays PA used funding from the state Department of Labor and Industry and United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania to underwrite the SSSP, which is being released in Harrisburg.

According to the report, a family of one adult, one preschooler and one school-age child - one of the several family configurations it uses - must earn $22.98 an hour to be self-sufficient. Roughly 40 percent of residents of the Philadelphia metropolitan area make that much, according to census figures.

This makes Philadelphia the fifth-most-expensive city in the country, behind Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Washington. Denver, where such a family must make $19.66 an hour, is one of the least expensive big cities.

Needs for families in the suburbs are even greater. In Delaware County, a family of two adults, a preschooler and a school-age child has to make $61,593 annually to meet its basic needs without assistance, according to the SSSP. The amount is $61,984 in Chester County, $63,660 in Montgomery County, and $62,685 in Bucks County.

Called "the Cadillac of standards" by the Economic Policy Institute, a respected think tank, the standard is used by growing numbers of legislators, employers and unions to calculate real-life costs.

"It's very credible," said Sharon Ward of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center in Harrisburg. "It gives an accurate portrait of costs for families and the struggles people have."

And Jonathan Stein, general counsel for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia and an expert on poverty, said: "This report provides an invaluable contribution to our understanding of poverty and what it takes to live these days. And it shows the total inadequacy of the federal poverty level as a measure."

For nearly half a century, U.S. policy makers have used the federal poverty level to track what a family needs to live. Entitlement programs such as food stamps are based on the level, which in 2008 states that a family of four is poor if it makes less than $21,200 annually.

But advocates for the poor say the level - first calculated in 1963 - is an extremely inadequate measure. They say even families that make considerably more than $21,200 a year can find themselves with far less than what they need.

The federal poverty level is limited in several ways, its critics say. For example, it doesn't take into account where a family lives. Housing costs in Manhattan, N.Y., are considerably higher than in Manhattan, Kan.

Also, it is based on the 1960s notion of a two-parent family with one parent at home, said Carol Goertzel, president and chief executive officer of PathWays PA. It doesn't calculate the reality that both parents work in 62 percent of two-parent families and, therefore, need child care, a potentially budget-breaking expense. It also doesn't consider the age of children, which dictates whether child care is needed.

When people first read the SSSP, they will experience a kind of sticker shock, said Diana Pearce, the University of Washington sociologist who prepared the study. Fifty thousand a year is a bare-bones budget? people invariably wonder.

But, she added, her calculations are extremely conservative. For example, they do not take into account the latest spikes in gas prices. Nor do they include the cost of eating in restaurants, even though, on average, a family spends 40 percent of its food budget on eating out. And the calculations assume that a family has health insurance and isn't paying for some outsize medical crisis.

So to fully comprehend the notion that a Philadelphia family of two adults, one preschooler and one school-age child needs $53,611 annually (or $4,468 a month) to sustain itself, you have to break things down into monthly costs, Pearce said. She added that all the costs she used represented the minimum that people in Philadelphia were paying, based on levels set by the state and federal governments.

The biggest expense for a family of this type is child care - $1,324 a month, which eats nearly a third of the budget, according to Pearce's calculations. Food is $812 (18 percent), housing is $788 (18 percent), and taxes are $985, though child tax credits return $267 a month, leaving a 16 percent bite. And advocates say the SSSP's transportation costs of $156 a month (3 percent) are probably low, given $4-a-gallon gas.

Health care costs $329 a month (7 percent), while miscellaneous costs, including clothes, nonprescription medicine and telephone service, are $341 a month (8 percent).

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or


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