What It Really Takes Just to Get by in America

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It’s not cheap — and sometimes it’s impossible — for many Americans to secure a modest standard of living for their family, where they’re meeting just the basic family needs.

The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute (EPI) just released an update to its Family Budget Calculator, which shows what families need to get by in rural and urban areas across the United States. It calculates a family budget for 10 different family types in 618 geographic areas.

According to the EPI, even when the economy is at its best, many parents employed in low-wage jobs are not able to earn enough money to meet their family’s basic needs, which include housing, food, child care, transportation and health care.

“Even when accounting for higher minimum wages in states and localities, a full-time, full-year minimum-wage worker is paid below what is necessary for one adult to meet her local family budget — and far below what it takes for an adult with even just one child to make ends meet anywhere,” the EPI said.

The cost of meeting a family’s basic needs varies widely depending on family size and geographic area. For example, a two-parent, two-child family varies from $49,114 (Morristown, Tennessee) to $106,493 (Washington, D.C.).

When you consider the federal poverty cutoff for a family of four last year was $23,850, it’s easy to see how families across the country are struggling to make ends meet.

These are some interesting findings from EPI’s Family Budget Calculator:

  • Housing: Housing costs in Binghamton, New York, take about 10.2 percent of a family’s budget, while housing in San Francisco drains about 25.6 percent of the budget.
  • Child care: “Across regions and family types, child care costs account for the greatest variability in family budgets,” the EPI said. Monthly child care ranges from about $344 in rural South Carolina to $1,472 in Washington, D.C. Child care costs for a two-parent, two-child family exceed rent in 500 of the 618 budget areas analyzed by EPI.

EPI’s interactive Family Budget Calculator takes into account a broad range of expenses as well as geographic differences in the cost of living. The federal poverty line doesn’t account for community-specific costs.

It’s also important to remember that getting by is a far cry from living a middle-class lifestyle.

“What we’re thinking about is a secure but modest life; it’s not actually a middle-class lifestyle,” EPI senior economist Elise Gould said in an interview with MoneyWatch. A middle-class income would provide for “the ability to be more forward-looking — to be able to save for your children’s college, and being able to save for retirement, aside from just Social Security contributions, being able to have a little in the bank in case a rainy day comes up. This is not these families.”

I used the Family Budget Calculator to estimate the cost of living for two adults and two children in rural Montana. According to EPI, for a two-parent, two-child family in my area, it costs about $5,425 a month ($65,098 per year) to secure a decent, albeit modest, standard of living.

How much does it take for a family of four to get by in your area? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

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