1 in 4 families can't afford basics: United Way study finds widespread poverty
Wednesday, October 06, 2004
- San Francisco Chronicle
One in four Bay Area families can't afford the basics of housing, food, health and child care without government aid, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Way of the Bay Area.
The study, called "The Bottom Line: Setting the Real Standard for Bay Area Working Families," looks at income and prices across the region to come up with a "self-sufficiency" standard for each of the nine Bay Area counties. It found that across the region 493,058 of 1,996,186 households lived below the standard. The figures do not include Bay Area households made up of elderly or disabled people."It's not just poor families, it's also working- class families," said Tse Ming Tam, a director with the National Economic Development and Law Center, speaking at a San Francisco news conference where the findings were announced. "We're seeing the erosion of those working families also."
The self-sufficiency standard was developed in 1996 and is considered by many activists and academics to be a more accurate measure than the more widely used federal poverty guidelines, which fail to account for cost-of- living variations within and between states.
The federal poverty level for a family of three is $15,260. That guideline is used to determine eligibility for programs such as Head Start, food stamps, National School Lunch and the Children's Health Insurance Program.
But the United Way study found that an adult with a preschool-age child living in Alameda, Napa or Contra Costa counties would need to earn about $20 an hour -- or $39,153 to $57,169 annually -- to afford the basics. The same family would have to make $23 an hour to live in San Francisco and $27 an hour to live in Santa Clara County, according to the study.
Family advocates and United Way officials said many families often had to choose between eating and paying their rent, even with government subsidies.
For Janet Brown, 49, of Pittsburg, it was often a struggle to make ends meet even though she was receiving federal housing assistance under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 rental voucher program and $800 a month in federal supplemental Social Security Income.
Brown, who is in a wheelchair after being wounded five times in a workplace shooting, said her monthly income was too high to qualify for food stamps, but not enough to meet her family's needs.
"Some months, we had to not pay a bill to pay another bill," said Brown, a single mother who has a 15-year-old son named Shaundrel. "We had to rob Peter to pay Paul."
In July, Brown got a job paying $18 an hour after finishing a training program at OPTIC, a center that provides training to low-income women in Contra Costa County.
She's now better able to handle her monthly bills, but she still relies on Section 8 to help pay for housing. OPTIC Executive Director Alissa Friedman said the report's findings reflected the clients her program serves.
"We're actually in one of the areas where there's the highest percentage of folks who aren't making it," Friedman said of eastern Contra Costa.
Among the report's other findings:
-- Housing and child care costs consume the biggest portions of household budgets. A single adult with no children must earn $11 per hour just to pay for basics, with housing accounting for up to 60 percent of expenses. Adding one child almost doubles the wage needed in every county, primarily because of child care costs.
-- The three counties with the largest numbers of families below the self-sufficiency standard were Santa Clara (120,815 households), Alameda (106, 506 households) and San Francisco (68,274 households).
-- Solano County had the largest share of its population below the self- sufficiency standard with 29.7 percent of households not earning enough on their own to make ends meet.
The report also identified regional "pockets" with higher concentrations of households living below economic self-sufficiency. Areas with 36 percent or more of households at substandard income include: Richmond, West Oakland, Potrero Hill and central San Jose.
United Way of the Bay Area is one of the largest private funders of health and human services in Northern California.
Advocates speaking at the press conference said the Bay Area -- and the rest of the state -- are in danger of developing a two-tiered economy with employees at the top receiving good incomes and benefits, with the majority of workers stuck in low-paying jobs.
"It's important to establish labor standards that prevent this," said Steven Pitts, an economist with the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, whose stated mission is to promote social and economic equity.
Bay Area self-sufficiency rates
Here is a look at the cost of living in the nine Bay Area counties andareas where people’s incomes are not able to meet basic expensessuch as housing, food, health care and child care..
E-mail Jason B. Johnson at email@example.com.