Living-Standard Metrics: Defining a Basic Economic Life

By O'Leary, Mick | Information Today, July-August 2019 | Go to article overview

Living-Standard Metrics: Defining a Basic Economic Life


O'Leary, Mick, Information Today


Unemployment is at near-record lows, the stock market is robust, and even workers' wages have had a modest uptick. But behind these happy-face talking points, there is a much larger and more complex story. In last month's issue, I covered three databases that deal with economic hardship and inequality: Inequality.org, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and the Future of the Middle Class Initiative. With sweeping analysis and incisive journalism, these databases describe an America in which many millions of citizens struggle to maintain a minimally decent economic life.

This month, we'll dig more deeply into the nitty-gritty and granular details of wages and living costs to see just what it takes to maintain that minimally decent economic life--or not. The Living Wage Calculator, the Self-Sufficiency Standard, and ALICE have created comprehensive and exacting metrics for defining the boundaries between just getting by and falling into economic deprivation.

The three databases have several common characteristics:

* The basic costs of living--Each database defines a set of basic, even necessary, living costs faced by any household: housing, food, transportation, child care, medical expenses, taxes, etc. The actual costs are then calculated for different geographic locations and household structures. Each set of "basic" living costs is harshly austere: no entertainment, restaurants, vacations, or even savings.

* Multiple household structures--Living costs are calculated for numerous household arrangements, from a single adult to various combinations of one- and two-parent households and children of differing ages and numbers.

* Varied geographic entities--Each database calculates metrics at the state and county level, and it may extend to other geographic entities: metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), towns, etc. The greatest differentiation among the three databases occurs in their respective geographic coverages.

* Rigorous methodologies--Each database is produced by a small team of highly qualified social science researchers, who draw on the most authoritative and recent data. Each project has been ongoing for several years and has strong institutional affiliations.

THE LIVING WAGE CALCULATOR

The Living Wage Calculator (living wage.mit.edu) was established in 2004 by Amy K. Glasmeier, a professor of economic geography and regional planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Based on support from a handful of corporate partners, it establishes a living wage for U.S. states, counties, and MSAs. It has seven living cost categories and 13 household structures. In addition to its own living wage calculation, the Living Wage Calculator includes data on local minimum wages and federally defined poverty wages.

For context, the Living Wage Calculator provides localized salary data for 22 career clusters. This allows comparisons among different household structures and career cluster earnings. Note: For even the smallest household structures, several large career clusters do not provide a living wage.

THE SELF-SUFFICIENCY STANDARD

Information Today readers with keen memories will recall that the Self-Sufficiency Standard (selfsufficien cystandard.org) was the 2015 BUDDIE winner for Best Unknown Database. It's revisited because it's an important metric for living standards. Developed in the 1990s by Diana Pearce, a social science researcher who investigated the intersections of women and poverty, the project is now conducted by the Center for Women's Welfare at the University of Washington.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard covers 41 states and Washington, D.C. For each location, it produces a periodic but irregular series of reports. The earliest reports are from the late 1990s, and the most recent are from the past few years. Some states have reports as recent as 2018, while for others, the latest may be several years old. …

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