Columbus Dispatch (Ohio), July 31, 2008: Self-sufficiency proves a stretch

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Noone has to tell Jeannette Davis that she doesn’t make enough to coverrent, food, transportation and other basic needs for her family.

The29-year-old single mother from Columbus earns about $30,000 a yearworking two jobs. Still, she can’t afford to pay her share of thehealth coverage offered by her employer and struggles to keep enoughfood in the house for her children, ages 10, 9 and 6.

Areport released yesterday found that families like Davis’ need anannual income of $53,431 to cover the necessities without government orprivate assistance.

Commissioned by the OhioAssociation of Community Action Agencies, the analysis shows how muchincome is necessary to be self- sufficient in each of Ohio’s 88counties for 70 types of families, including childless adults, singleparents and couples with children. Making low-income familiesself-sufficient was a key goal of national welfare reform more than adecade ago.

The report also underscores a long-held complaint by advocates for the poor and others that the 45-year-old federal poverty guidelines should be scrapped because they grossly underestimate what it takes to get by.

“Itcosts a lot more to be poor than it used to,” said Philip E. Cole,executive director of the Ohio Association of Community ActionAgencies. “If we are serious about helping people out of poverty, when we talk about self-sufficiency, we need to know exactly what we’re talking about.”

Thereport found almost nowhere in Ohio where a single person can get bywhile earning the state’s $7 minimum wage. (Belmont, Carroll, Morrowand Van Wert counties were the exceptions.)

InFranklin County, a single person needs to make $8.36 an hour to coverbasic needs, or $17,652 a year; that’s about $7,200 more than thefederal poverty guideline.

Add children to a family, and costs go up quickly.

Asingle mother of a preschooler in Franklin County needs to earn $16.22an hour, or $34,260 a year, to pay for their basic needs; that’s 2 1/2times the poverty level for a family of two.

Amarried couple with two children — one in preschool and one of schoolage — must have an annual income of $49,818 to make it in FranklinCounty; that’s more than double the poverty level.

Thereport’s author, Diana Pearce, director of the Center for Women’sWelfare at the University of Washington, considered the costs ofhousing, food, child care, transportation, health care and taxes. Shealso assumed that all adults, regardless of family composition, workedfull time.

“There are no takeout or restaurant meals in here,” Pearce said. “This is a bare-bones budget.”

Thefactors that most influence expenses are location and family makeup.Housing costs vary greatly across Ohio, and families with youngchildren can spend a quarter or more of their income on child care.

Thereport will be given to Gov. Ted Strickland and leaders in the OhioGeneral Assembly. The findings also will be presented to the governor’sAnti-Poverty Task Force, which is expected to make recommendations to Strickland this fall.

Colesaid policymakers should consider how much it costs to beself-sufficient when they create economic-development incentives andguidelines for job-training and other government- assistance programs.

Forexample, self-sufficiency standards can be used to ensure thatcompanies receiving tax breaks to locate in Ohio provide jobs that payenough for employees to get by, Cole said. The analysis also isavailable for schools to use in personal-finance classes.

Davis, the single mother, was living in a homeless shelter when her second of three children was born.

“It’sdepressing when you go to work every day and try and make something ofyourself, and it’s still not enough,” she said. “I have to makechoices. Are we going to eat, or are we going to buy medications?”

Thissummer, she and her children went door to door in their Far East Sideneighborhood to solicit $225 in donations to pay for her boys to playfootball and her daughter to join a cheerleading squad.

AlthoughDavis’ earnings have increased in recent years, getting by has, in someways, become harder because her family no longer qualifies for foodstamps and subsidized housing.

“We’ve turned a corner, but when I didn’t work when my kids were younger, I got so much help.”

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