The Cost of Living

This is part 4 of a series on economic injustice. Click here to read from the beginning.

We used to play pretend, give each other different names, We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away, Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face, Saying, “wake up, you need to make money.” –Twenty-One Pilots, Stressed Out

I am at the doctor’s office. The small building provides mental health care and basic physical exams. Every meeting with my therapist was in a different room, they never know which ones will be available. The doctor’s office is the size of a closet, which she kindly leaves open so my partner can sit outside the door and listen, because it’s too small for three people to sit in. When I get to the counter, they say that’ll be $10. Because I have no reportable income, it’s the lowest price they can offer, but I cannot pay for my blood tests and therapy sessions. For the umpteenth time, I explain that I’ve filled out all the forms indicating that I can’t spare even ten dollars. The woman behind the desk says not to worry – she’ll add it to my eventual bill. An intern in scrubs looks up and asks me, “But how do you survive?”

I gave him a frustrated look, and held up the grocery bags I’d just been handed, featuring some nonperishables. “Well, I’m eating food pantry food, for starters.” I said. My energy reserves were too low to let out a biting remark about how need doesn’t make money magically appear, and staying alive literally just means not dying.

Each bill must be paid as soon as enough money comes in for it, and I have many various sources – generous gifts from friends and supportive strangers, whatever freelance jobs I can scrounge together online, and pawning our old beat-up Xbox 360 and thrift store TV. Last month’s rent and late fees, plus the bills we were behind on, were paid with every last penny of my tax return. When I work “real jobs,” I burn out so quickly from chronic pain and cognitive dissonance that it has never been steady income for my entire adult life.

To truly examine how failure to be independent is inevitable in this system, it will be necessary to discuss the cost of living, what it takes to afford being alive, and how profit is exacted from the poor.

The federal government relies on poverty thresholds and guidelines developed by the Census Bureau and Department of Health and Human Services to determine financial eligibility for benefits. [1] One of the most staggering findings of my research for this article is that HHS has used the same calculations for the cost of living since 1963, only adjusted for price changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).[2] The Bureau of Labor Statistics is fairly transparent about its methods for calculating the CPI, but any average consumer would be shocked to know how outdated – and, frankly, lazy – the process is. According to their own FAQ page, each year the CPI is based on figures already a few years old (emphasis mine):

“The CPI market basket is developed from detailed expenditure information provided by families and individuals on what they actually bought. There is a time lag between the expenditure survey and its use in the CPI. For example, CPI data in 2016 and 2017 was based on data collected from the Consumer Expenditure Surveys for 2013 and 2014. In each of those years, about 24,000 consumers from around the country provided information each quarter on their spending habits in the interview survey. To collect information on frequently purchased items, such as food and personal care products, another 12,000 consumers in each of these years kept diaries listing everything they bought during a 2-week period.”[3]

So it’s based on surveys, only of urban populations, and an average is calculated based on that. This causes so much confusion in those who bother to check the methodology behind the CPI that the Bureau has a fact sheet titled “Why the Published Averages Don’t Always Match An Individual’s Inflation Experience.”[4]

The calculation for the cost of living was established with imprecise figures due to limited statistical research. Notably, it was based on pre-tax income for after-tax expenses.[5] At the time that it was developed in 1963, the poverty threshold for one person’s annual income was $1,539. The US Federal poverty guidelines in 2018 put the new poverty line (for one person in a year) at $12,140[6]. That’s just an inflation number – just short of the Inflation Calculator’s estimate that $1,539 in the year 1963 is equivalent in purchasing power to $12,311.30.[7] It fails to account for the changes in markets and necessities, based on a time before Internet and the necessity to have cell phone service in order to secure a job. It also doesn’t vary geographically.[8]

In 1996, Dr. Diana Pearce developed what she called “The Self-Sufficiency Standard,” an estimate adjusted by location to determine how much people need to make to survive. This is updated regularly and regionally, and accounts for an actual cost of living budget. Pearce describes it this way (see the previous footnote for full article):

The Self-Sufficiency Standard specifies for job trainers and other policymakers working at the local level what the minimum you need is for food, housing, child care, transportation, health care and miscellaneous expenses. It also takes into account taxes, net of tax credits.

The costs of those expenses vary by where you live and your family composition — how many adults, plus the number and age of children. But it does not include any public or private assistance; it does not take into account help from food stamps or food banks. Instead, the Standard tells you how much it will cost you to buy your own groceries and pay your own rent or leave your children in the care of a licensed child care provider.

At the same time, the Standard represents the lowest amount still adequate: rent and utilities are set at the level families with housing assistance receive, as is the level for child care. The food budget includes no takeout or restaurant food, not even a pizza or a cup of coffee. There is no allowance for savings, recreation, entertainment or education.

As of 2018, the United States government recognizes a family of four as being in poverty if they make $25,100 or less.[9] The average actual living wage, calculated with Pearce’s method for the same family size, is $66,842.[10]

Guess how many Americans are making a living wage according to the self-sufficiency standard.

17 percent.[11] The rest of us are living a no-frills lifestyle.

For me to make more than $66,842 per year, I’d have to be in the top 2% of white millennial women with some college education. $50k would completely eliminate my debt, bring my credit score up, give me the stability to cover living costs for at least several months, and I could get a car that is capable of making lengthy trips. And still have enough left over to save and invest in my creative endeavors.

This massive difference between what the US federal government recognizes as poverty raises questions about why the calculation methods haven’t been updated. Only minor revisions have taken place, the last one having happened in 1981. Why?

I’m going to take an educated guess based on my experience with filling out more forms than I can count, talking to more callous government workers than I can remember, to prove that I am poor, to prove that I cannot work, to prove that I am a human being with a right to eat and sleep with a roof over my head: they don’t care.

The numbers are skewed and outdated, and they know it. To admit that human beings simply cannot provide for themselves with what it is possible for most Americans to earn would require some honesty. These are just a few of the skewed statistics – another is the one that overlooks the fact that minimum-wage earners are often also part-time workers, making their overall income even less than the assumption of full-time hours. [12]  It still makes the bottom line of low unemployment rates look far, far better than they actually are.[13]

Anyone in the United States who is failing to meet the standards of self-sufficiency is a problem for the monetary republic. Profit is king, and anyone who isn’t working enough to make enough for whatever reason is a rusty cog in the machine.

The in-depth research in this article was made possible by my Patreon supporters.


Sources Cited:

[1] https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines

[2] https://aspe.hhs.gov/frequently-asked-questions-related-poverty-guidelines-and-poverty#developed

[3] https://www.bls.gov/cpi/questions-and-answers.htm#Question_2

[4] https://www.bls.gov/cpi/factsheets/averages-and-individual-experiences-differ.htm

[5] https://www.ssa.gov/history/fisheronpoverty.html#33

[6] https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines

[7] http://www.in2013dollars.com/1963-dollars-in-2017?amount=1539

[8] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/how-much-is-enough

[9] https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines

[10] http://livingwage.mit.edu/articles/27-new-data-up-calculation-of-the-living-wage

[11] http://graphics.wsj.com/what-percent/

[12] https://www.advisorperspectives.com/dshort/updates/2017/02/06/the-ratio-of-part-time-employed-remains-high-but-improving

[13] https://tradingeconomics.com/united-states/employed-persons