Working hard, getting poorer: Let's see what it's like getting by on a $35,000 family budget

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The Post-Gazette last month described a recent poll that "found high levels of anxiety among those earning $35,000 annually or less" and that these low-wage earners "are among the most pessimistic about their future career prospects, their job security and their finances."

Their pessimism, anxiety and fears are well-founded. A look inside the numbers gives a sobering perspective on many of those "good-paying manufacturing jobs with good benefits" that everybody seems to be chattering about. (Seen the billboards and TV ads lately?)

Let's start at the top, $35,000 a year, which breaks down to a job that pays about $673 a week ($16.83 an hour), and a family of four -- mother, father and two children -- living on that income.

The family gets a good deal on a three-bedroom home, rents it for $700 a month ($8,400 a year) and spends $600 a month on car expenses ($7,200 a year). The family spends $172 a week on food ($8,944 a year) and $275 a month ($3,300 a year) for water, sewerage, natural gas, electricity and garbage removal.

In addition to that, about $4,025 a year comes out to pay federal FICA taxes, the Pennsylvania income tax and the 1 percent earned income tax. (Because of deductions under the still semi-progressive federal tax code, the family probably would pay little or no income tax, or it might qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit.)

When these expenses are subtracted, the family is left with an annual disposable income of $3,131. That's about $261 a month and $60.20 a week.

But look at what's not on the list.

There's little money to save for a down payment on a home, to put into a college fund for the children or to set aside for an emergency, such as the car breaking down or the refrigerator going on the fritz.

There's little money for shoes and clothing; laundry expenses (washer and dryer or Laundromat); personal care costs (haircuts, shampoo, soap, deodorant, etc.); telephone (land line or cell phone); computer (with Internet hookup); and cable television.

There's little money for hobbies, school activities, family vacations, Christmas gifts, birthday presents, church offerings or charitable donations.

But that's not the cruelest part of this middle-class meltdown. The biggest items not on the list are retirement savings and health care coverage. The harsh reality is that this family would have a hard time taking full advantage of them.

If 2 percent goes into a 401(k) plan, another $700 a year comes out of the family's disposable income, leaving it with $2,431 a year ($46.75 a week).

Then there's health care. Under the employer's plan, participants contribute $75 a week. If the worker opts out of the 401(k) plan, he might be able to pay for the coverage -- if that were the end of the family's health care costs.

But it's not. Don't forget to factor in the co-pays, deductibles and other up-front payments that come with most health care plans. Even if the family could come up with $75 a week for basic coverage, out-of-pocket costs might force the family to forgo usage for as long as possible. (I know of one plan that requires families to shell out $700 before company coverage kicks in. This same plan requires participants to pay 10 percent of major medical expenses up to $20,000.)

Please note that dental and vision expenses are nowhere to be seen in any of these calculations.

The family could supplement its income. The father could find a second job, taking time away from his wife and children. The mother could go back to work, which might entail child-care costs and buying a second car -- added expenses that would cut into whatever she earned. No matter what, their life likely would be an unrewarding grind.

Unfortunately, their plight isn't receiving the attention it deserves.

For example, "60 Minutes" recently ran a piece on American manufacturers having trouble finding workers. It featured a Nevada company that couldn't find qualified applicants -- for a $12-an-hour job (with benefits). Try raising a family on $24,960 a year.

If you think that's absurd, consider this: The Caterpillar hydraulics plant in Joliet, Ill., has a two-tier wage scale -- $26 an hour for workers hired under an old contract and $12 to $19 an hour for workers hired under a newer one. Of course, these $12-to-$19-an-hour, "good-paying manufacturing jobs" come with much ballyhooed "good benefits" that cost an arm and a leg to take advantage of.

They're just the tip to the low-wage iceberg. CNNMoney, using data issued last Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, reported on the low pay of many common jobs. Here are the occupations, the estimated number of Americans in them and the 2012 annual mean wage for those jobs:

Retail sales person, 4.34 million, $25,310; cashier, 3.31 million, $20,370; food prep worker, 2.94 million, $18,720; office clerk, 2.8 million, $29,270; waiter, 2.33 million, $20,710; customer service representative, 2.3 million, $33,110; laborer, 2.14 million, $26,410; janitor/cleaner, 2.1 million, $24,850; and secretary, administrative assistant, 2.09 million, $33,560.

That's more than 24 million working Americans who had an annual mean wage in 2012 that was less, and in most cases significantly less, than the $35,000 earned by the family in the example dissected above.

These people aren't freeloaders or welfare cheats, takers or slackers. They are the hardworking poor (and getting poorer) -- and their ranks are growing. Will we reward and respect those who work hard or will we continue to pummel them?

How we as a society and a people answer that question will determine what kind of country the United States will be in the not-too-distant future.


Bob Uhriniak is the retired editorial page editor of the Beaver County Times.


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