Costs without government assistance are rising in the Philadelphia area, study says

Posted: October 17, 2012

It costs a lot of money to live in the Philadelphia region without government assistance - as much as $70,000 a year or more for a family of four in some places.

That's the word from a study being released Tuesday. It measures what it costs a family of two adults with one preschooler and one school-age child to live in the region, taking into account the costs of housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and taxes.

In the city, a family of four needs $61,199 a year to meet basic needs without public assistance such as welfare or food stamps, says the latest version of the Self Sufficiency Standard, a measure calculated every two years by the University of Washington for PathWays PA, a Delaware County antipoverty advocacy group that focuses on women and children.

The standard figure this year is nearly $2,000 more than it was two years ago, reflecting increases in the costs of health care, gas, food, housing, and child care. About 42 percent of Philadelphia households are below the standard, an increase of 10 percentage points from two years ago, according to Marianne Bellesorte, senior director of policy at PathWays PA.

Everyday life is costlier in the suburbs, where the same-size family needs more to achieve self-sufficiency. In Bucks County, a family needs $71,863; in Chester County, $73,992; in Delaware County, $73,763; and in Montgomery County, $74,057.

"We're not talking about the homeless, but folks who were in a good position before the recession and are now struggling to stay afloat," said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, who uses the report in her work. "This report is a reminder of how far away American reality is from the American dream."

The standard is calculated by analyzing data from various state and federal sources such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A family of four is considered poor if it takes in $23,050 a year, according to the federal poverty level, which is based on food costs. That measure, which has been used for nearly 50 years, has long been criticized as failing to take into full account what it costs to live in America.

The level does not include the costs that the Self Sufficiency Standard does. Increasing numbers of local governments, corporations, and advocacy organizations use the standard because they believe it is a better measure than the federal poverty level.

Combined with the Self Sufficiency report was PathWay PA's analysis of the impact of the recession on Pennsylvania residents.

In its "Overlooked and Undercounted 2012" report, PathWays PA shows that even though the state is filled with hardworking people, many are not doing well because they are stuck in jobs with inadequate wages.

Four of five families below the standard have at least one worker, and 62 percent of those workers work full-time and year round, according to the report.

"Wall Street may be recovering nicely, but hardworking families are still struggling," noted family economics expert Kathy Fisher of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, an advocacy group that utilizes PathWays PA data. "The cost of basics - food, gas, rent - continues to go up, while wages don't come close to making up the difference. Parents may want better for their children, but it's hard to figure out how to save for college when they can barely pay this month's child-care bill."

Throughout the state, 25 percent of households lack sufficient income to meet their basic costs, the report says. That is more than double the proportion designated as poor by the federal poverty level.

The report's conclusion is that while the federal poverty level identifies 355,936 Pennsylvania households as poor, nearly 840,000 households - 2.3 million people - are struggling to make ends meet by living below the standard.

A great number of those struggling include single mothers, residents of larger cities, and people in Latino and African American households, the report says.

"Over half of these Pennsylvanians are overlooked and undercounted using the official poverty thresholds," according to the report's author, Diana Pearce, director of the Center for Women's Welfare at the University of Washington.

To make things better, "we need to be working with households to help them reach self-sufficiency," Bellesorte said.

People need help attaining financial literacy to learn how to spend their money better, she said. They also need easier access to safety net programs such as food stamps during a recession, Bellesorte added.

An increase in work supports, such as child-care assistance, would help, according to the report. But, it concludes, "in recent years, Pennsylvania has decreased funding" in these areas.

Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or

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