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Ever wondered why it seems so hard to make ends meet? The Colorado Self-Sufficiency Calculator allows anyone to type in family size and configuration to determine the minimum amount of annual income required to meet a household’s basic needs. Visit the calculator and you’ll find some staggering and terrifying numbers.

Here in Denver, Colorado a single parent with one school-aged and one preschool-aged child needs a minimum of $40,740 a year just to meet the family’s basic needs! A married couple with one toddler and one preschooler require an income of $50,496 a year! And these households will need a higher income if their housing will cost them more than $728 per month and if transportation runs more than $100-200 per month.

I was shocked when I discovered how expensive basic needs are these days. To put these numbers into perspective, $40,740 per year for a single parent is approximately $20 per hour. This is a wage unobtainable by so many and it’s fully three times the current minimum wage!

These self-sufficiency figures don’t include a family vacation or any savings. They don’t include out-of-pocket medical expenses, unpaid maternity leaves, or unpaid absences from work. They don’t include realistic transportation costs for those living in areas where public transportation isn’t readily available. They also don’t include the inevitable debt payments that arise when the unexpected does happen and there isn’t enough money to go around. I wonder what the numbers would be if we factored in these very common family expenses.

The figure that’s currently used to define “poverty” seems invalid and significantly inaccurate in light of these findings. Reports and policies often define the federal poverty level at around $18,000 a year. (Some say this figure does not include the cost of housing.) But isn’t it time that we start using updated and realistic income figures? Don’t we need to accurately know how many households can not make ends meet as we make policy decisions to dig our nation out of financial crisis? It seems to me that using such inaccurate numbers misleads voters and politicians alike to believe that there is a middle class, when in actuality $50,000 per year is now just getting by!

So how many families are unable to be self-sufficient, despite their hard work? The accompanying report, titled Overlooked and Undercounted concluded, “Almost three times as many people lack enough income to make ends meet as are recognized using the federal poverty line.” Almost three times as many!

Unfortunately, the barriers experienced by women and minorities compound these economic issues. The study found, “While families with less education are more likely to have inadequate income, race and gender are more important predictors of inadequate income than is educational level. For example, white men with high school degrees are more likely to have adequate income than women of color with a bachelor’s degree or higher.”

Let’s assume for a moment that these figures are the same across the nation. (My guess is they’re probably similar, with some states performing better than Colorado and others worse.) If there are three times as many households living in poverty as currently reported, how does this affect your opinions about the wage discrimination faced by women and minorities? Or the federal minimum wage? Or healthcare coverage and other social issues?

Angela Sasseville, LPC, NCC is a psychotherapist specializing in strengthening couples and families. She, her hubby and their two adorable curly-tops live in Denver, Colorado. For tips on coping with financial stress, see Angela's personal blog at FlourishCounseling.com.


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