A Struggle for Working Families

Author: Kinsey Alden Dinan
Publication Date: March 2009

Millions of parents find themselves struggling to make ends meet, despite hard work. Even a full-time job is no guarantee of economic security, with the high cost of everyday expenses and a federal minimum wage of just $6.55 an hour – less than $14,000 a year with full-time, year-round employment.

The Basic Needs Budgets developed by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) show the cost of basic day-to-day necessities for families with children. Using examples from these bare-bones budgets, this brief examines the question of how much families need to get by and provides insight into the struggles that working families face. Examples are drawn from 12 localities and are based on families with two children. Basic Needs Budgets show that it takes an income of about 1.5 to 3.5 times the official poverty level ($22,050 a year for a family of four), depending on locality, to cover the cost of a family’s minimum day-to-day needs. The largest expenses are typically child care and housing, although health care and transportation can cost nearly as much – and in some cases more. While the struggle to make ends meet is particularly difficult for single parents, paying the bills is a tough challenge for two-parent families as well.

How much does it take to get by?

The cost of living varies dramatically both within and across states. To make ends meet in the large, high-cost cities of Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, for example, a two-parent family with two children (one preschool-aged and one school-aged) needs an income of $52,000 to $67,000 a year. Some smaller cities, such as Burlington, VT, cost just as much. That means two full-time workers earning at least $13 an hour each.

Basic Needs Budgets for Two Family Types

In more moderate-cost cities, the same family needs about $45,000 to $47,000 a year to cover the cost of day-to-day necessities. Des Moines, Detroit, San Antonio, and Tampa fall into this range. The cost of living is typically less in rural areas, though there is wide variation across the country.

In the low-cost rural areas of Alamosa County, CO, Curry County, NM, and East Carroll Parish, LA, a two-parent family with two children can make ends meet with an income of $35,000 to $37,000 a year. In rural Grays Harbor County, WA, a Basic Needs Budget for this family is higher: $41,000 a year, or two full-time, year-round jobs paying $10 an hour.

For a single parent, making ends meet presents an even greater challenge. While family expenses are somewhat lower, there is only one worker to shoulder the cost. A single parent with two children needs to earn $15 an hour to afford basic necessities in a rural area of New Mexico, $20 an hour in Des Moines, and $27 in San Francisco.

Nccp.org (National Center for Children in Poverty)

I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed.

Booker T. Washington