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Poverty closer than it used to be

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| January 23, 2024 1:00 AM

Eleven million American children, or about one in seven kids, live in poverty. Most were born to it. Statistics say their children will be more likely to experience the same. It isn’t just how hard we work in life; the good fortune of an easier start has a big impact on the future because it means fewer hurdles and more advantages.

For grown-ups, barriers to eliminating poverty are higher than they used to be.

Let’s start by doubling the minimum wage. A single filer working full-time at $15 per hour earns $31,200 a year pre-tax, or about $2,236 monthly after federal income tax. That’s well above 2023’s official (and very unrealistic) poverty level of $14,580. And it’s not nearly enough to cover the basics. 

Let’s do some quick math using 2023 figures. The average electric bill in the U.S. is $145 (Idahoans have lower-than-average utility bills). According to data reported by Move.org, the average monthly cost of groceries last year was $415 per person. Gas heat and internet vary, but let’s lowball those at $100 total and assume water and garbage collection are included in rent. CNBC reported last June that according to JD Power, an average monthly cellphone plan costs $144. 

Now to cars and housing. According to a Dec. 21 article on Marketwatch.com, comprehensive auto insurance costs Americans an average $167 per month, although this varies widely by individual and state (the same coverage in Florida costs more than $250). Gas prices and usage are hard to peg, but let’s call it $3 a gallon and $150 monthly, which is JD Power’s lowest average.

So far, that after-tax paycheck is down to $1,115, and that doesn’t leave enough for rent. A study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported last year by NASDAQ.com showed average fair market rent in Idaho costs $1,120. That’s lower than in most states, although it’s higher in Coeur d’Alene, where the cheapest I could find in a quick search was about $1,200.

Oops. Already in the red, and that’s without covering all the basics.

The last Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey showed 12%, or about 38 million working households living in poverty. They don’t have enough to cover these necessities, let alone health insurance (average $477 per month, USA Today), car repair and maintenance ($66 according to AAA), TV ($100 for cable or satellite, the only way to get even the channels which were once free), computers (a necessity for most jobs) or clothing.

Forget about birthdays, Christmas gifts or coffee with a pal.

Can you make a life on that? Could you with one dependent? Many local families struggle to scrape by in similar circumstances, including a fair number with a bachelor's degree or marketable technical skills. Conquering poverty isn’t as simple as “work hard and you’ll do well.”

Those of us lucky to have enough have good reason to care about those who don’t. Beyond compassion for others, poverty affects the economy in general, which in turn impacts conditions for everyone. Economic research has linked increased poverty rates with decreased economic output, higher crime costs and higher health care spending. When poverty goes down, the opposite happens and society at large benefits.

What can one person do? Let local and state officials (who tend to have more impact on this than federal) know you want more support for affordable housing. Affordable housing is fundamental to poverty rates.

Economists tell us that housing is affordable when it costs no more than 30% of income, ideally, only 25%. Going back to that $2,236, that means that to be reasonably affordable, rent shouldn’t cost more than $745. Obviously, that’s far less than the actual prices.

Next comes food. Anybody who shops for groceries knows what’s been happening in stores. Is it all inflation? No, it’s not. According to an August report by Forbes, Bureau of Labor Statistics food costs continue to outpace inflation. Worse, when inflation went down last year, food prices rose exponentially more and according to economists that tired old supply chain argument just doesn’t explain it. Major food companies and some grocery chains took in record profits in 2023.

There’s not a lot we can do about that in a free market, but we can speak with purchasing power. We can choose which brands we buy, and which stores we frequent.

The first step toward change is simply being aware, and sharing it. January is National Poverty Awareness Month. If your bank balance doesn’t hover perilously close to zero once the bills are paid, may you long enjoy the blessings of a comfortable life.

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Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who knows how lucky she is. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.