This year, I noticed the holiday lights going up a bit earlier. The holiday spirit seems more pervasive. The air is cold, the trees are bare — yes, ’tis the season. This is a time of year when we reflect on what’s truly important in our lives: family, friends, community.
With more frequency, people are inclined to give back to the community perhaps out of a deeper appreciation for their own abundance or out of hope for the betterment of our shared humanity.
This also is a time of year when many in our community are experiencing great stress.
For those living in poverty, the winter and holiday season present even more difficulty. These families must navigate financial instability amid expectations of holiday giving, contend with the difficulty of meeting their basic needs, and combat the heightened emotional and mental despair that often coincide with the toxic stress of poverty.
A few weeks ago, I attended Moving Beyond Poverty, an excellent and timely summit organized by the Asset Building Coalition, Community Foundation of South Puget Sound and United Way of Thurston County. The summit highlighted local poverty data, generated thought provoking conversations, and reminded us of the different causes and definitions of poverty, all of which should be considered when thinking about community vitality.
Generally, people considered to be living in poverty are those with incomes less than what is sufficient to meet the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, medical care and other essentials. In 2004, the national poverty threshold for a family of four with two children younger than 18 was $24,008.
Generational poverty includes families with two or more generations born into poverty. Some families and individuals, however, experience situational poverty because of a major health issue or divorce. Additionally, significant numbers of people are working but remain financially unstable.
While the poverty threshold remains fixed, the cost of living varies by geographic location. The Living Wage Calculator (developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) is an alternative measure of sufficiency. This tool uses market-based expense data to calculate the actual wages needed to meet basic needs in different locations. According to the Thurston County Living Wage Calculator, a family of four consisting of two working adults and two children need an annual household post-tax income of $54,436 to meet their basic expenses. This means a staggering gap of $30,428 between what is considered poverty for a family of four and what it actually costs to support that family in Thurston County.
In this state, the minimum wage is $9.47 per hour. However, in Thurston County the Living Wage Calculator shows that both working adults in a family of four each need to make $14.50 or more per hour to meet their basic expenses. The hourly rate jumps for single-headed households. For one adult in a house with two children, the hourly rate of pay needed to meet basic expenses is $26.47, which equates to an annual salary of just over $55,000 for that parent. In order to put these numbers into context, I’ll use my child care and housing costs as an example. The cost of one year of day care for my two kids is $18,000 and my housing is $12,600 which adds up to $30,600 before any other expenses.
With these figures in mind, it’s important to note that the median annual income of male headed households in this county is $41,372. However, a wage gap exists. The median income of female headed households in Thurston County is an alarming $26,525. Furthermore, national data confirms that women of color make substantially lower wages than white women so the median annual income for these households is likely even less.
This is critical information for local employers and begs for continued conversations about how people are making ends meet.
When we consider that a single parent of two kids needs to make $26.47 per hour to meet their basic needs in Thurston County, we need to greatly, greatly expand our view of poverty. Additionally, we need to critically examine the primary industries driving our local economy in terms of job creation (retail trade, manufacturing, food service and nonprofits) and think about the fact that these industries are employing a lot of folks who aren’t getting their basic needs met. This is a problem.
At this time of year, as the holiday lights downtown set the streets of our city aglow and we begin to think about our hopes for the future and our shared humanity, let’s also engage in critical conversations about community culture and the policy solutions that will truly support local vitality for all. ’Tis the season.
Hillary Soens is a member of the 2015 Olympian Board of Contributors — and an Olympia resident, parent and CEO of the YWCA of Olympia.