ECONOMY • BY AMALIA EHRMANN, CNS Special Report
Families with young children in Montgomery County must earn at least $64,000 a year just to cover their basic needs without government aid — about a 50 percent increase over the past decade that makes the county more expensive for working families than New York City and San Francisco, a new study says.
The study was done by University of Washington researchers, who calculated a “self-sufficiency standard” for each county based on family make-up and the local cost of housing, food, childcare, transportation, taxes and other essentials.
An adult with a preschooler needs to earn $64,606 a year or $30.59 an hour in order to be economically secure without public or private assistance. That goes up to $77,933 annually or $36.90 an hour if a school-age child is added. The same size household could get by with about $4 an hour less in New York City and about $2 less in San Francisco.
The study did not determine how many working families have incomes below the self-sufficiency standard. Census Bureau data show that roughly 161,667 people in Montgomery County — about 17 percent of the population — live in families with incomes less than 200 percent of the official census poverty threshold. (For a family of four, twice the threshold would be about $44,000.) The census data count the elderly and other categories that were not included in the self-sufficiency calculations for working families.
Demand has increased for county programs to help make up the gap between wages and the costs of basic needs. The number of families enrolled in the food stamp program more than doubled and enrollment in the temporary cash assistance program rose by 53 percent since fiscal 2007. Home energy assistance increased by 37 percent since fiscal 2008 according to a briefing done for the Montgomery County state delegation.
“The budget is not big enough to take care of all families, so the government is having to partner with the non-profit community,” said Montgomery County Councilmember Valerie Ervin. “We are in a partnership of sorts with some non-profits that provide food and housing.”
Ervin said the budget has been cut over the last five years because revenue from taxes — especially property taxes — has decreased. Local governments rely on property taxes to fund their budgets.
Although her district is a stable, middle- and upper-middle-class community, Ervin said the number of phone calls she receives from people asking for help, particularly with rent and electric and gas bills, has increased.
Among the phone calls are complaints from neighbors about two families living in the same house. This sometimes conflicts with the county’s code-enforcement law, which requires 150 square feet for the first occupant of a home and 100 square feet for each additional resident.
However, this is one of the ways families are coping with the rising cost of basic needs.
“There are many people who utilize shared housing options and make informal child-care arrangements within the shared house to cut down on costs,” said Adam Fogel, chief of staff at the office of Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Navarro.
Montgomery County planning director Rollin Stanley said in his blog earlier this month that many people in poverty are employed — some work part time and others full time, and some have high education levels.
“I had an opening in my office and it was for a very entry-level job and more than 100 people applied for the job,” Ervin said. “I would say half of them were way over-qualified. That just goes to show how people are struggling to make ends meet.”