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Report on Why Single Parents Can't Pay the Bills

November 21, 2000|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A single parent with two small children must earn $40,870 annually without government or private assistance to meet basic living expenses in Los Angeles County, according to a report released Monday by a statewide coalition of family public advocacy groups.

The parent with a preschooler and a school-age child must earn a minimum of $19.65 an hour to make ends meet, according to Californians for Family Economic Self-Sufficiency. The group's so-called "Self-Sufficiency" wage is more than triple California's current minimum wage, which is $5.75 per hour. (The state's minimum wage will rise to $6.75 an hour over the next 15 months, beginning with a 50-cent bump Jan. 1.)

"What the standard tells us is that lower-wage jobs--even though well above the minimum wage or official poverty level--simply do not provide enough for meeting a family's needs, even at a minimally adequate level," said Diana Pearce, the report's lead author. "It's because of high costs, such as housing and child care, for example, that single parents need higher-wage jobs, not because of bad budgeting or bad choices."

Pearce has led similar studies in 13 other states, including New York, where she found that a family of three with a preschooler and school-age child living in parts of Manhattan would have to make $74,232 to live independently.

The "Self-Sufficiency Standard" provides an income for a family to meet minimum nutrition requirements and to obtain housing that is neither substandard nor overcrowded. In essence, the standard calls for just enough money so that a family would not be forced to choose between paying for necessities such as child care or food.

For example, in Los Angeles, the report calculated monthly living expenses for an adult with a preschooler and school-age child this way:

* $766 for a two-bedroom apartment;

* $1,053 for child care;

* $372 for food;

* $262 for transportation;

* $222 for medical care;

* $267 for miscellaneous expenses;

* $627 for taxes.

A parent in this situation would receive $163 a month back in child and child-care tax credits. The standard does not include expenses for long-term needs like retirement, purchase of major items such as a car or emergency expenses. "These are bare-bones budgets," said Pearce. "The food budget has no takeout food, not even a pizza."

In many cases, the disparity between income and basic needs is narrowed by child-care assistance from extended family members, or by such government benefits as food stamps.

The self-sufficiency report demonstrates the urgency for higher wages and a re-definition of federal poverty standards, according to coalition leaders including Equal Rights Advocates, a San Francisco-based public interest law firm specializing in gender discrimination issues.

To fall below the current federal poverty line, a family of three would have to earn less than $14,150. This monetary standard is applied everywhere--from Manhattan to Mississippi to Manhattan Beach. The federal poverty line, unlike the "Self-Sufficiency Standard," fails to take into account regional and local variations in expenses.

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