Friday, November 14, 2008


The campaign for a “Real Bottom Line of How Much Money it takes to Survive” has provided a much-needed resource to define what amount of money a family needs to meet its basic needs. The research and hard work put into this effort are to be commended. If nothing else, it confirms the inadequacy of our financial safety net of public assistance programs. It also explains the constant struggle our working poor families are facing in their effort to make ends meet. It further suggests that government programs should look to this new higher standard as a guide for eligibility. This would, of course, expand the benefits many of our financial assistance programs offer to many more families, which is a worthy goal. No one in America should do without basic human necessities.

Unfortunately, in a sample letter to the editor (see below) issued by the supporters of this plan, there seems to be very inappropriate comments about “welfare” and those receiving cash assistance as being “slackers.” Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines a “slacker” as “a person who shirks work or obligation.” The writer seems to be making the point that somehow the assistance we give to working families is not welfare and in the process chooses to malign those families who currently must rely on cash assistance.

The term “slacker” cannot be applied to folks receiving assistance under the “reformed” welfare system adopted in this country ten years ago. Welfare reform added time limits, work requirements, reporting requirements, and sophisticated computer monitoring systems to resolve the issues of who “deserved” public assistance raised by all the old myths about welfare. Folks receiving public assistance benefits cannot and do not shirk work or their many other obligations. However, apparently some of the advocates for the poor have adopted the currently fashionable political posturing of some that public assistance given to folks who are more like “us” is not welfare and, therefore, is acceptable. Folks who are more like “us” are more “deserving” of our help.

Instead of trashing the poorest people, those on cash assistance, we need to build stronger coalitions among all low-income families and individuals. The truth is that all means-tested financial assistance programs are welfare. That includes Medicaid, child care subsidies, housing assistance, earned income tax credits and HEAP. It baffles me as to why some programs are seen in such a positive light and others denigrated. Someone receiving financial assistance due to limited income is in the same boat as millions of other people who are sick, disabled, unemployed, divorced, elderly or just working at a low wage job. We should all be proud that we live in a country that feels a responsibility to help its less fortunate citizens. Pitting the poor against each other does not advance our efforts to create a just and fair society.

Jack Frech 11/10/08
Director, Athens County Department of Job and Family Services

DRAFT Op-ED for Submission to Daily Newspaper Editorial Editor by Low Income Advocate
Please review carefully and personalize with individual country information

What’s the REAL Bottom Line of How Much Money it Takes to Survive Here in XXXXX County and Why It Matters

As ______[job title and organization]_____________________________, I’ve learned that how we as a nation define, measure and report poverty is emotionally charged and can often generate more heat than light.

Many times, when the conversation turns to poverty here in America and in our community, logic and rationality can go out the window. And when that happens the possibility of any useful follow-up discussion about what, if anything, can and should be done to assist those who are not making it financially becomes almost impossible.

But in these scary and challenging economic times, it’s even more critical to have these kinds of discussions as more and more Ohioans find themselves closer to the margins and living on the edge.

I’ve seen it many times. Just using terms like “poverty”, “poor” or “low-income” can conjure up arguments, resentments, political agendas and a host of other distractions that don’t help us get any closer to answering the real question that we as citizens of any income level or political viewpoint should want to know: Exactly how much money does it take to be economically self-sufficient right here in our community? In other words, exactly how much money is required to be able to pay the basic bills without any family, charitable or government assistance?

If conservatives, liberals and everybody else could just find common ground on what economic self-sufficiency really means in the real world – what the REAL bottom line for survival is – then we could discuss and debate what we should do about it in a more meaningful way. We might not agree on the policy prescriptions or action agenda for helping people become more self sufficient but, at least, we could start the discussion on the same page.

With a new President and Congress (on the horizon) the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies (OACAA) – the organization representing Ohio’s XX locally-governed poverty-fighting organizations – believed the time was right to answer this question for each of Ohio’s 88 counties. So, they asked the University of Washington to develop something called The Ohio Self Sufficiency Standard for 2008.

The Ohio Self-Sufficiency Standard uses a proven formula and real world data to determine exactly the minimum amount of money it takes to pay the rent, buy food, cover child care, get to work and just cover the basics without any savings, fun or frills in each of Ohio’s 88 counties.

Right here in XXXXXX County, for example, two working parents with an infant need to earn at a minimum of $XX,XXX a year to be considered self sufficient; that’s $X.XX per hour per parent. Again, this represents the REAL bottom line of what it takes to just get by. That figure is well above the federal poverty guidelines, which determine eligibility for programs like Head Start and Medicaid that can help low income working people better be able to hold onto a job. That figure is well above the minimum wage. In fact that figure is more than most jobs in Ohio pay.

The Ohio Self Sufficiency Standard presents a budget and the necessary income to meet that budget for various family sizes and configurations in every Ohio county along with full information on how the researchers determined each county’s self-sufficiency budgets. You can access the full report at: (or newspaper web site, if posted there).As you look through the report and digest the numbers keep these things in mind:
  • The families who live below the self-sufficiency standard or even below the federal government’s definition of poverty – which is usually around half of the self-sufficiency standard – are by-and-large working families. They aren’t on welfare. They aren’t slacking off. They work low wage jobs and are treading water. Sadly today, with fewer jobs and lower wages in every corner of Ohio, working is too often not a ticket to true self sufficiency;
  • In order to survive and be able to raise a family on wages that pay below the self-sufficiency standard, we believe – especially now -- that a solid system of work supports needs to be in place – child care assistance, health care, job-training and skills development, housing vouchers, etc. – to reward work and help assure families can cover the basics that low wages do not until additional training and job success moves them toward real self-sufficiency;
  • We also believe that the federal Poverty Guidelines used to determine eligibility for these kinds of work supports should be adjusted to be closer to the self-sufficiency family budgeting standard in the report rather than the artificially low and outdated methods used to calculate them today.

Look through the self-sufficiency standard for your county and ask yourself if the numbers make sense as a way to determine a survival baseline. If they do, then join us in the coming dialogue on how we can assure more Ohio working families meet and ultimately exceed this standard.