By Gabe Meline
How do you know if you're poor? According to the 40-year-old Federal Poverty Level, you're officially poor if you're making less than $17,170 a year. This is a joke, and not a very funny one, in the North Bay, where local living expenses are considerably higher than the national average. A more realistic computation is what's called the Self-Sufficiency Standard, a scale based on the actual cost of living in each county, including housing, childcare, food, transportation, healthcare and taxes. When reflected against real-life census figures, the Self-Sufficiency Standard paints a very grim portrait of struggle and ethnic disparity in the North Bay.
According to a just-released report by the United Way titled "Struggling to Make Ends Meet," over 23 percent of households in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties fall below the Self-Sufficiency Standard. Laziness can't be blamed; 90 percent of these households have one or more people working. In fact, in Sonoma and Napa counties, where the median annual income is $62,000, two adults living with an infant now need to make at least $51,000 a year—which translates into more than three full-time minimum-wage jobs—just to cover basic living expenses. In Marin County, where the median income is $84,000, that number jumps to $64,000, or four full-time minimum-wage jobs for a family of three.
The report also finds that in the North Bay, Latino households are the most likely to have incomes below the standard. Currently, 51 percent of Latino households in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties have insufficient incomes to meet essential needs, compared with just 17 percent of white households. In the report covering greater Bay Area, Asian, African-American and Pacific Islander households are disproportionately below the standard, as are families headed by single women and high school dropouts.
The United Way currently supports several local programs working to get families back on their feet, including education mentoring, hiring tax credits for employers, teenage job placement and the 2-1-1 phone number for low-income families to get connected with services. But the roots of systemic poverty run deep and nationwide, and with President Obama's stated support for reforming the Federal Poverty Guidelines, there may hopefully come a time when those truly struggling are designated as such by the government and not merely by comprehensive reports. How do you know if you're poor? Read the full report, breaking down detailed monthly living costs by county and implying the introduction of a new, self-sustaining minimum wage (think: $12 an hour), at www.liveunitedca.org.
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