self sufficiency

The Prospect of Rising from Poverty into Self-Sufficiency is Dim


This is not intended to be a political article.  I’m writing it to open the eyes of those with all political beliefs.  I know the old cliché that money doesn’t buy happiness, but it’s damn hard to be happy if you don’t have any.

Let’s look at a typical single mother with two children ages seven and three.  Her ex-husband is a deadbeat who has skipped town and pays no child support.  She has tried to take legal measures to collect, but such collections are not a priority for the courts.  She is a good mother who loves her kids and shows it.  She doesn’t drink or smoke and doesn’t hit the bars.  She has an occasional date on a weekend for dinner or a movie, but nothing regular.   The picture I’m painting is intentionally of a good person who creates the best possible situation for her children and herself.

As a high school graduate, she finds two jobs.  One is in retail sales for which the national average in $12.20/hour.  The other is as an administrative assistant in a manufacturing facility ten miles from home.  It pays $16.00/hour.  The retail job offers a choice of three shifts.  The office position is 8 to 5.  As you will see, the retail job alone makes her life impossible, so we will give her the higher paying position.  Here is a typical monthly budget for such a scenario.

Income                                                                                                                                                             2773
Taxes (Federal & state income and social security                                                                480
Rent (2BR—2nd lowest in my community)                                                                             725
Groceries (USDA avg. for moderate diet, all meals prepared at home)                            620
Auto insurance (minimum coverage)                                                                                         75
Gasoline (2 tanks)                                                                                                                         100
Utilities (gas, electric, basic cable, basic cell phone)                                                             180
Health insurance (employee share of company plan + optimistic copays)                      260           2440
Remaining after essentials                                                                                                                               333

Unaccounted for:
Medical co-pays, kids’ expenses (lunches, field trips, supplies), clothing, household items, car repairs, and other
AND THE LAST STRAW: CHILD CARE (Avg. for licensed center)
3-year-old (full time)                      600
7-year-old (after school)                 300

Now Mom has some alternatives.

  1. Tough it out, and hope no major expenses arise. Maybe she finds a neighbor who will watch the kids for $40/week. This is risky because there are no enforced standards to this type of care.
  2. Quit the job, and go on welfare.
  3. Take the retail job half-time on second shift. After taxes, this would increase her available cash by $184/week to $517. It also causes her to rarely see her children except on weekends when she is so exhausted she can’t give them the attention they deserve.So let’s say she chooses alternative #1. If nothing goes wrong, she can eke out a life, but let’s look at other circumstances and risks she’s exposed to.
  • She dated a guy for four months a year ago who thinks he owns her. Periodically, he catches her away from home and beats her. Once she was hospitalized.
  • Her car is far from new. Repairs are frequent.
  • Her child care could become undependable, and frequent absences will put her job in jeopardy.
  • The amount nonprofit charities can raise in voluntary contributions is a pebble in a pond compared to the amount needed to right the ship. The only solution I can think of is a radical restructure of our federal tax system (read that as increase for higher incomes) or redeployment of the existing budget (read that as a transfer from defense to education and human services). If you have another one, please let me know.
  • As I read my own article, I guess I have to succumb to what will be perceived as a political statement. I know there are many people who play the system and are undeserving of the assistance available to them. I truly wish we could weed them out. But then I also wish we could weed out those who fraudulently steal millions from pension funds and other sources the middle-class counts on. However, compared to the abusers, there are many-fold who are like my example. Try as they might, they just can’t make it. In Illinois, the median income adjusted for inflation has decreased by 9.5% this century.
  • You can contend that all of us bear these risks, and you are correct. But those of us with greater incomes and some savings have more wiggle room before we reach dire circumstances. We might have to give up some of our toys and maybe even move to a smaller house, but we have many choices before we hit poverty.
  • This makes her a virtual juggler with several balls in the air. If any one of them drops, her act is ruined. She must keep everyone of these facets of her life—job, transportation, child care, violence, housing, kids’ behavior, et al–under control, or her life crumbles.

Now I ask all of you with your six-figure incomes and $200,000 houses and three cars and all the other privileges money brings, tell me how you would handle the situation if you had to trade places with the Mom in our story.  My email address is