The view from the White House, not to mention much of Capitol Hill, is idyllic. True, there are a few blotches on the landscape--a queasy stock market and what conservatives see as a long-running deterioration of America's core moral values. But other than that, what's to complain? Americans are gratefully cashing in their tax rebates to redo the kitchen counters or pay off some credit card bills. Welfare reform has been declared a universal success, with more than 60 percent of former recipients making their own way in the job market. Unemployment is yesterday's problem, and the official poverty rate has reached a comfortingly low 12 percent.
But look more closely and the scenery becomes a whole lot grimmer. On July 24, the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute released a report showing that 29 percent of American families with young children--precisely the sort of families that policymakers should be most concerned about--do not earn enough to live at any acceptable level of comfort and security.
The EPI researchers got to this appallingly high number by calculating the basic--make that very basic--budget a family needs to live on. This is a budget that includes health insurance, child care costs, and telephone, but no meals out, vacations, movies, cigarettes, beer, or other routine middle class indulgences. So, for nearly a third of American families, things that the more affluent take for granted--like Internet access, video rentals, and occasional cab rides--are almost impossible luxuries.
But they get by, don't they? Not exactly.
Of the families who earned less than the "basic" budget, which amounts to $33,511 for a family of four, more than 70 percent worried about food, sometimes missed rent payments, and/or had to rely on an emergency room for their medical care. Nearly 30 percent reported facing far more dire hardships--having to miss meals, forgoing needed medical care, being evicted from their housing.
In a purely selfish way, I'm relieved by all this statistical bad news: At least it shows that the conditions I faced while researching my recent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, were not due entirely to my own bad luck or incompetence.
I spent a total of three months, in three different cities, attempting to support myself on the wages I could earn as an entry-level worker--as a waitress, a hotel housekeeper, a maid with a housecleaning service, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart floor clerk. At...