Pulling Yourself Up by the Bootstraps, by the Numbers

I spent the early years in my career in analytical roles, so I tend to retreat to the numbers when the rhetoric ramps up.

I continue to be saddened and disturbed by the number of people who go to bed at night with full stomachs but who insist on arguing against any government help for the poor in this country.  You can’t argue from a perspective of common sense with that crowd, so I retreat to the numbers.

Recent statistics on the number of poor, as defined by the government’s own parameters tell us that approximately 100 million Americans (1/3 of our population) are living in poverty. In 2012 the poverty level was defined as a family of 4 with a household income of $23,050 a year. As a comparison, someone who works a full-time (40 hrs/week) job at minimum wage grosses $16,120 a year.

Just for fun, I threw together a spreadsheet of income and expenses for someone working a 40-hour a week FT job (2,080 hours / year), and making minimum wage, which I believe is still $7.75/hour. Let’s look at how “high on the hog” these likely food stamps recipients are living:

Monthly Reality of Minimum Wage

In this scenario I have used LOW estimates for RENT, and CAR PAYMENT rates to highlight how ridiculous the “pull yourself up” contentions are, even in the most affordable places. Most people will find rent much higher, and cars more expensive than $200 a month.

This scenario allows no accommodations for health insurance, retirement or other savings, or frankly, any other expenses. It also assumes spending $100/week on food/grocery supplies.

You may say, “get rid of the car – they’d save $320 a month”.

Well, OK but in my state, the GOP governor and legislature have slashed public transportation to the point that it is almost not usable.  Not to mention, some jobs require you to have a car and not rely on public transportation to get to work.  Furthermore, in this scenario, saving $320 still leaves them under water by $36 a month. In addition, since it’s pretty clear this household will need a 2nd (or 3rd) job, relying on public transportation for multiple jobs is simply not feasible.

“Poor people don’t need a cell phone if they need food stamps to eat!” This is another simpleton retort. People need a phone of SOME sort, whether to find a job, keep a job OR be reachable by children and other family members and I’m pretty sure that it’s cheaper to get a low end, pay-as-you-go cell phone than to pay for a monthly land line (which also requires a credit report to set up).

Other things missing (unaffordable) in this scenario are clothes, over the counter medication, BIRTH CONTROL (how would you afford diapers and formula on this salary – never mind child care), emergency health care visits, birthday or Christmas gifts, repairs to the car, fines or other fees (registration, inspection and licensing of a car in my state is over $100 annually) and the other unexpected expenses that arise. There’s also no money for TV now that all TV comes via the local cable company (another cost).

I have intentionally NOT included any credit card bills, which are a reality for so many families OR student loan debt. When you look at this stark financial reality, you know why someone might, in desperation, believe the hard pressure sales pitch to “go to school on their pajamas” and agree to borrow up to $40,000 for what is often a worthless degree (where would you fit a $300/month student loan payment into the above budget?!)

You might think, GOOD workers will get raises and move up.  Sure.  In recent decades as corporate raiders have watched their own salaries and bonuses explode, the average worker has been dealing with raises from 2.5% – 5% while the cost of everything else grew at a faster rate.  This same minimum wage employee, working hard and getting an average 3.5% increase for 5 years will be making a whopping $8.89/hour, which, if all their bills remain the same, will leave them only $188 in the hole each month.

This leads me to something rarely discussed in the public sphere: for those of you advocating for the elimination of government aid for the poor, what is the solution to the family facing the budget scenario above?

Where should they live?
What should they eat?
What should they do when they are sick or injured?

If you know a better way than governmental support, I’m all ears.

3 thoughts on “Pulling Yourself Up by the Bootstraps, by the Numbers

  1. […] a previous post, I mentioned that I’m a data nerd. When I see something “funny” (and by funny, I don’t mean […]

  2. […] of the topics I have undertaken of late – recovering from a tragic loss, single parenting and poverty – some good news, or at the very least a way to FEEL better about not-so-good news surely […]

  3. Lots of good points, but you’re missing on a lot of stuff as well. First of all, anyone that has such a lack of valuable skills that they can only land a minimum wage job does have one thing to offer: time. If the vast majority of upper and middle class workers put in more than 40 hours a week to have the things they want, why the hell can we not expect others to put in more than 40 hours a week to SURVIVE?

    A few more things: someone with this salary isn’t even close to paying taxes. That closes most of your deficit; no one with a college degree is limited to minimum wage jobs (so throw out the comment about factoring in students loans – which have ample systems in place for financial hardship anyway); if your family of four has a single minimum wage employee you don’t use birth control – that’s the problem; one of your biggest expenses is food stamps which this family would obviously qualify for; even minimum wage jobs typically offer health insurance to full time employees; you don’t need a TV but you can get a working one for free on Craigslist and still get broadcast OTA.

    Keep in mind, we’re talking about an [oversized] family making the absolute minimum a single person in good health can possibly make, and there is still an argument that it’s doable. I recently saw an ad on the subway that said if you just graduate high school without having a child you have a 98% chance to live above the poverty line. Is that really too much to ask?

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