It's a cruel April fool's joke.
The unemployment statistics came out on Friday, saying yet again that unemployment is down in Chicago. Nine percent - that's where we are right now. According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security, 39,400 jobs were added to the economy.
But the New York Times spoiled the joke before it even officially came out, with another report that said those jobs that are being added aren't enough to get people back into the middle class. Heck, they're not even enough to get people out of poverty.
Their story contains a surprising new standard for measuring poverty - a number that measures not just your current income, but your economic security. How likely is it that you could belong to the middle class and stay there? You might be surprised.
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This new study, put out by a nonprofit called Wider Opportunities for Women, asked a new question: what does it take to be economically secure living in the U.S.?
Their definition of economic security involves not only income, but how much income you have left over to save - for emergencies, for retirement, for a child's college education. It means you have savings if you lose your job. It means not having to rely on government assistance if the worst happens.
The study points to a situation we've been talking about a lot here lately. What is life like if you have two working adults whose wages are low enough that making ends meet is a struggle? Here's just one example:
Tara, a medical biller who declined to give her last name,
said that she earns $15 an hour, while her husband, who works in
building maintenance, makes $11.50 an hour. The couple, who live in
Jamaica, Queens, have three sons, aged 9, 8 and 6.
"We tried to cut back on a lot of things," she said. But the couple has
been unable to make ends meet on their wages, and visit the River Fund
food pantry in Richmond Hill every Saturday.
To figure out just how much money meant economic security, Wider Opportunities for Women started with a bare bones budget - the amount mandated by Uncle Sam as necessary for food, shelter, health care and owning a small car. They amount also included how much money someone would need in their savings so that if a problem arose, they wouldn't have to rely on welfare, food stamps or social security.
So, what's economically secure? You might be surprised. I was. Take a look:
Awhile ago, when I wrote about how my family and many of my neighbors have been eeking by on under $30,000 a year, an acquaintance questioned me about it. He laughed and said it sounded like my husband and I were barely getting by. I wasn't sure if he laughed because my husband and I are both white and college educated, living in a pretty middle-class neighborhood, or that I should have been embarrassed to acknowledge that by the government's standards, I was poor. Did anyone out there think that freelance journalists were making piles of cash? If so, I'm sorry to burst your bubble.
This report encapsulates what I feel, and what I know millions of families are dealing with. That it seems impossible to get ahead, sometimes. And while this is something that people have struggled with for generations, the current levels of economic inequality indicate that families today may have it a little tougher in this department than grandma or grandpa.
I know it's gauche to talk about money in our society (Believe me, somewhere, my mother is cringing), but if we don't start talking about this, how does it get any better? Millions of Americans want to be (or stay) middle class. They're not looking to choose between steak tenderloin or surf and turf, as one of our recent commenters suggested. They want a little money in the bank, the feeling that they could make it through the hard times that will inevitably come.
So, what about you? According to these guidelines, are you economically secure? Are your neighbors? Do you think these numbers are pie-in-the-sky, or do they represent a real standard of what Americans hope for in their lives?
Leave us a comment. Don't worry - you don't have to leave your real name. We wouldn't want your mother to be embarrassed.