Gazette opinion: Children suffer as working poor parents struggle

2013-04-17T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Children suffer as working poor parents struggle The Billings Gazette
April 17, 2013 12:10 am

In the debate over extending Medicaid, proponents often cite the "working poor" as Montanans who would benefit,

Who are the working poor?

Thale Dillon, director of Montana Kids COUNT at the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research, answered that question in a recent issue brief. Sadly, the answer includes more Montana families with children than families without kids.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines "working poor" as a person who spent at least 27 weeks in the labor force during the past year but earned an income that fell below the official poverty level.

In 2012, the official poverty level was $11,170 for a single person, $19,090 for a family of three, and $23,050 for a family of four. The poverty level is adjusted for family size.

Montana's minimum wage, which Dillon notes rose to $7.80 on Jan. 1, would provide an annual income of $16,224 to a full-time, full-year worker. That's above poverty level for a single person, but not for a family.

Nationally, families with children under age 18 are about four times more likely to live in poverty than families without children, Dillon said. The poverty rate is higher still for families with children under age 5.

What does it take to support a Montana family's basic needs?

According to the Living Wage Calculator from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Montana household with one adult and two children needs $2,400 a month to meet basic expenses; that's $28,800 annually. Thus, a "living wage" for a such a Montana family is $13.85 per hour.

"The gap between actual wages earned and the living wage is continually widening as a large portion of low-education jobs pay not only less than the living wage, but also less than what is considered a poverty wage," Dillon wrote before posing this disturbing question: "What message is related to today's children when they watch their parents work hard but still struggle to make ends meet?"

As many as 40 percent of working poor parents are high school dropouts and 35 percent have no education or training beyond high school. These parents don't have the education to obtain jobs that pay well. And their situation is likely to be repeated by their children.

"A child's educational achievement is highly correlated with that of his or her mother, creating a cycle of low education and achievement, and, by extension, poverty," Dillon wrote.

Breaking this cycle requires both helping working poor parents access postsecondary education and helping them retain more of what they earn so they can save, invest and weather emergencies to create security for their families.

Access to affordable health care is essential to the economic well being of all families. Families who are among the working poor cannot pay for health care. Parents who cannot earn a living wage cannot afford the cost of health insurance. That's where Medicaid coverage would make a difference, allowing people to get needed care, to stay healthy and keep working.

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