When a job is not enough: New measure looks at what’s needed for economic security

As we recover from the great recession, the need to create jobs is foremost in the minds of the public and the promises of politicians. But if too many jobs don’t pay enough to cover the basic needs of a family, we may only dig ourselves further into a hole and cripple our ability to support the next generation of Americans.

So what is an adequate income to meet those basic needs? The question is important, as it determines how we set goals, determine eligibility for public support, and understand many problems in society. Yet the tool most commonly used to measure this, the federal poverty level (FPL), is long out of date. It considers only cash income and expenses of three times the cost for a 1950s diet.  That was appropriate when the measure was created, as food took up a third of the typical household budget at the time. Today it is less than one-tenth. The measure also does not adjust for differences in the cost of living by region or family type.

Several attempts have been made to improve on the FPL. The most advanced tool for Oklahoma has been the self-sufficiency standard, which takes into account the cost of food, housing, health care, transportation, and other necessary expenses, including geographic variations and costs for children of different ages. The Obama administration has also begun releasing a Supplemental Poverty Measure alongside the traditional FPL, to incorporate a broader set of expenditures and income sources.

Now there’s another new tool to help us understand what workers need. Last week, Wider Opportunities for Women released their Basic Economic Security Tables (BEST) for the United States. BEST draws on numerous data sources to calculate the minimum income needed to pay for housing, utilities, food, transportation, child care, household items, and health care, with and without employment-based benefits. Most of these measures are in the self-sufficiency standard, but the BEST goes beyond that by including emergency and retirement savings, as well as asset building to save for higher education and homeownership.

BEST calculates the needs of over 400 different family types consisting of one or two workers and up to six children. The initial report includes six states and Washington DC, but WOW plans to release data for every state and metro area.

As Michael Sherraden, a consultant on the project, told the New York Times, “It’s an index that asks how can a family have a little grasp at the middle class. If we’re interested in families being able to be stable and not have their lives disrupted and have a little protection and backup and be able to educate their children, then this is the way we have to think.”

The standard is important to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are fairly shared. As the BEST report notes, an economic shift to lower-paying, lower-benefit jobs risks leaving even those who are employed trapped in poverty:

Fewer than 13% of jobs the US Department of Labor expects to be created by 2018 are likely to provide economic security to a single parent raising two or more children. A small majority of new jobs are expected to pay economic security wages for single workers without children, and approximately 43% of the new jobs will pay economic security wages for two workers raising two young children.

The BEST calculations show that even those who work hard can be unable to make ends meet. At a time when federal and state programs relied on by the poor and middle class are under serious threat, it’s a message we should take to heart.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

2 thoughts on “When a job is not enough: New measure looks at what’s needed for economic security

  1. “non white households”…what does that mean? That white people are all sitting pretty? That’s a load of bs. I have a LOT of white friends who are suffering just as well from the financial issues in this country, myself included! People living below the poverty line and even struggling to keep food on the table.
    Only it’s harder to get “help” when you’re “white”.
    I applied for food stamps when my job disintegrated and I couldn’t find more work. I sold whatever I could. I barely had enough to scrape by and I was literally going hungry.
    When I applied for food stamps I was also out every day trying to hunt down a job. When I finally found a job, it was pathetic. Didn’t pay worth a damn plus I was told I had to do “workfare”.
    When I showed up for workfare I was the only white person. All the other people were there due to some legal infraction…a DUI or worse.
    They all said to me, ” what you doing here lady?” When I told them they all raised their eyebrows and said, “they must have made some mistake cuz we have to do this as a form of punishment”. (The work was pretty tough outdoor stuff including cleanin public restrooms, which I usually got stuck with because the DUI guys whined when they asked them to do it. Anyway, even the other people thought it was screwed up.
    If this wasn’t shitty enough, every single month after I did this outdoor labor, I’d get a letter in the mail CANCELLING my EBT inspire of the fact I did workfare and I would have to spend at least six to ten hours on the phone begging them to straighten it out.
    The workers where always totally incompetant and eventually someone’s oils say that my paper work was misplaced or some such other excuse.
    They ALWAYS treated me lousy every time.
    Now I have totally lost faith in the system. I voted for Obama. I really believed in trying to make the world equal and fair to people of all races.
    Yet when I lived in a non white neighborhood and needed help, and I even worked my self sick, I filled out all the right paperwork and did all the workfare jobs. (They ALWAYS gave me the worst jobs ever)! I was vey harshly treated and discriminated against consistently.
    It pisses me off! Some people think just because you’re a clean cut white person that you have a secret money tree somewhere?
    All the people I knew in my old neighborhood who weren’t white where doing WAY better then me even if they didn’t have jobs or do workfare! They got food stamps with no interruptions. They got medical help. They got money! (I could barely get food!!!!) they were all driving very nice cars!
    Not me! I had to quit the idea of even owning one.
    Whoever thinks white people are not suffering financially in the current state of “recession” is lying to themselves.
    I now have a job where I work 100 hours a month. I barely make enough to live and sometimes I don’t. I don’t think I can cover my bills this month and I have no assistance. I haven’t been able to eat well and have no health insurance and I wonder why I bother.
    I am poor and I work very hard to keep a roof over my head. I live in a not to expensive neighborhood. I don’t see any assistance available to me.
    I voted Democrat to try to make things better. Did I make a mistake?
    I hated Bush but Obama hasn’t really done anything impressive for this country yet and is even talking another war???
    That’s what America needs.
    Another war to suck the money we don’t have right out of the economy.
    This seems like another lose lose situation to me…

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