by Sr. Researcher, Emily Tamilin

Understanding that the poverty line is used to measure need based on survival demonstrates why it may not be a sufficient national benchmark. In fact, most economists agree that families need to earn at least double the poverty threshold to meet their basic needs. Therefore, a second measure of need often cited is the Basic Living Standard, also measured by the US Census Bureau, which applies to families earning up to 200% of the poverty line. For a family of four, this is approximately $47,000.

To paint a clearer picture of need, we must, at the very least, examine both the number of families living below the poverty level and those living below the basic living standard. While we may see in this graph that the percentage of our children living Children in Needbelow the poverty line has decreased since 2011, we can also see that the percentage of our children living below the basic living standard has increased. That means that in 2013, 43.6% of our children were living in need; when we compare that with the percentage of students in CMS eligible for Free & Reduced Lunch (56.8%) we see that even this measure may be inadequate.

While there is no consensus about what constitutes a basic standard of living, many argue that 200% of the poverty line still fails to meet that standard. A 2014 report released by NC Budget and Tax Center argues for what it calls a Living Income Standard (LIS) that not only examines what a family needs to make ends meet but what it needs improved its economic position. It also argues that an NC family of four would need to earn a combined $25/hour, working full time to meet the LIS, currently $52,275. Yet, two adults employed full time at the current minimum wage would only bring home $14.50/hour or little more than $30,000 /year; an income far short of the identified LIS for the state.

More troubling is the reality that the cost of living in Mecklenburg County is higher than the state average, which means our families would need to make a bit more than that $52,275. The table below outlines the average monthly expenses for families living in our community.

Table 1

If  we continue to measure need based on income, it is imperative that we offer fruitful opportunities for work because

“Work not only allows individuals and families to meet most basic needs, it also opens the door to new opportunities and a sense of dignity and purpose, all of which have driven America’s economic growth for generations” (NC Budget & Tax Center)

Regardless of how we measure need, it is critical that we understand that when children grow up in situations where their needs cannot be adequately met, their success is negatively impacted. Research has long noted that children in poverty experience poorer health (physical and mental), lower academic achievement, and increased susceptibility to abuse or violence, especially when compared to their more affluent peers.

Table 2

Recognizing that poverty has far reaching implications for successful outcomes, the NC Budget and Tax Center has identified some strategies to combat it:

  • Raise the minimum wage, design it to automatically grow with inflation, and ensure that it is being enforced
  • Reinstate the Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Identify and provide effective supports that ensure all families have access to health care, child care, and nutritious food
  • Require taxpayer-supported jobs pay wages that meet the living income standard and offer benefits that support retirement
  • Invest in education and skills training at all levels
  • Encourage private business to pay a living wage and offer voluntary certification

For more information on the Living Income Standard, please find NC Budget and Tax Center’s report here.

[1] Payroll, State and Federal Income Taxes with Non-refundable Fed and State Credits

(Sources: 2013 ACS, 1-year estimates; National Center for Children in Poverty; NC Budget & Tax Center; Seccombe, K. (2000) Families in poverty in the 1990s: trends, causes, consequences, and lessons learned. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62, pp. 1094-1113.)

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