Too steep a price tag for the American dream
Long years of hard work, raising children on a tight budget, possibly working two jobs or even two parents working two jobs apiece. That’s the personal investment in the American dream.
A family will keep on because they know their goals: to be financially independent, to have a little more than barely enough, to own or rent a house and be able to heat it. To know where the next week’s meals are coming from. Maybe be able to buy one of those big, tough trucks that the TV commercials virtually promise will make the family real-life examples of living the American dream.
Generations of Americans have believed that success is theirs to win or lose, and that if they only stick with it, they will have real, U.S. of A. independence. But instead many are now wondering what they are doing wrong. They can’t keep up. Somebody seems to be moving the goalposts.
The United Way in Connecticut has an answer no one is going to like because it means relinquishing reassuring but inaccurate information, and it will call for courageous lawmaking.
The numbers do not lie. Using 2021 figures, United Way recently released its calculations of a “survival budget” for a family of two adults with two young children. In New London County it took $96,852 to pay for the necessities of housing, heating, food, transportation, health care and childcare. The median household income was $78,828. That leaves an annual gap of $18,024, perhaps more.
Federal Poverty Level estimates of what it costs for a family to pay their bills have long since become outdated, especially in pricey Connecticut.
Two years ago, nine percent of New London County households were living below the federal poverty line and nearly a third, 29 percent, were what the United Way calls ALICE households. Pandemic-era child care tax credits and other supports gave them a temporary boost, but those funds are winding down while high inflation does not.
ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed. Translated, that means working people who may be living paycheck to paycheck, with little or no rainy day savings or such assets as home ownership. Typically, ALICE includes cashiers, cooks, some teachers, truck drivers, secretaries and personal care aides. In Connecticut in 2021 their median hourly wage ranged from $14.16 for retail sales to $37.72 for high school teachers.
Obviously, these are people without whom our society would not function and who must work steadily for their earnings. Yet they continually face food insecurity, late rent payments, a struggle to pay their bills, lack of savings for emergencies, and hard decisions about whether they can even afford to work if child care takes most of their earnings.
Minimum wage reforms fall far short. ALICE households may make a little more than before but because of inflation they have to spend disproportionately more. The disparities between whites and people of color, between households headed by a single woman and those headed by a single man persist by large margins.
The United Way has historically had close ties to labor and to employers; both groups regularly contribute to solutions. Labor union members have stepped up with one-on-one encouragement for financially struggling co-workers. They provide the personal assurance that reaching out for assistance does not mean failure. They provide practical help by pointing co-workers to the state’s 211 help line as a starting point.
Employers are a major source of funding and volunteers for United Way partner programs that can help with heating, job training, food, and affordable child care. Ultimately, however, the problems faced by ALICE families are symptoms that won’t be cured until wages and costs meet in the middle. Some fixes only government can make, so expect a push for the legislature to address laws and policies on child care tax credits, affordable housing, minimum wage levels and public transit for getting to better-paying jobs. If Congress can pull itself together and pass a budget, it can work on reining in inflation.
Connecticut is an expensive place to live but a good one. The gulf between what a family can earn and what they must spend can set the state economy back for everyone, not just now but for future workers. That’s not the American dream.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, copy editor Owen Poole and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.
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