Are you poor? Double check before you answer.

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.

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:

NY times economic security.png


Are you economically secure? I’m not. Even with my husband working full time and me freelancing, we don’t even come close. I’d like to think that we’re a rarity, but having seen how many of my neighbors make a similar amount, I’d say a lot of us are in the same boat.

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.

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  • I'm unemployed and my husband makes about $77,000/year. We have a mortgage, and an old, old car that's about to fall apart, so we're looking to have a car payment hopefully under $300. Neither of us have school loans. And we have one child who needs tutoring that costs about $3,000/yr.

    We've taken one vacation in the last 10 years that was 4 days long, we go out to eat about 4x a month. My husband's company pays for part of our health insurance, but our part about $8,000/yr.

    We haven't saved money in years. We don't live extravagantly, we rarely buy books instead we use the library, we don't rent movies very often, or buy music. I don't own a cell phone, and my husband's is provided by his work. Where does our money go? Clothes, resale and discounts stores when needed. It's really the mortgage that's killing us, when property gets expensive so does everything else.

  • I am unemployed. I get half my food from a local food pantry. I live in a building where the utilities are part of the rent. Without a position making 800 a month and soon ill be on the streets. Thrift stores I know well. I am very glad i do not have a family otherwise i would have been on the streets 6 mo ago. there are at least 20 people in my building in the same condition. where is a 45 year old man supposed to work. the major burger joint is not hiring.
    i think im frustrated.

  • I did the math, and confirmed I'm not poor. Hit me up ladies.

  • It's real simple folks. For the last 30+ years wages for everyone in the US have been flat, while the cost of living (particularly housing, education and medical costs) have gone up. Many of us fooled ourselves because food, clothing, and consumer good prices have been suppressed by either government subsidies or cheap labor in other countries like China keeping the price of manufacturing down. The problem is those jobs all had to leave the US to chase that cheap labor which only further aggravated the problem of keeping US wages low. Business on the other hand have had no problem for the last 30 years. The money they would have used to increase everyone's wages they kept as profits. And because our government doesn't penalize business for sending jobs to China (or tax their profits), there is no incentive to invest in America. This is not a individual problem; it's systemic. And I for one am tired of the rhetoric of self-blame. We need higher wages, higher employment, higher food and housing grants, higher progressive taxes. We don't need to cut a single public employer. That just makes everything worse. And no, I'm not poor. I'm temporary without backpay -- 30 years worth.

  • In reply to alreadybeensaid:

    It's real simple folks...

    Buy Chinese manufacturing stock.

  • In reply to gwill:

    Are you trying to be funny?

  • In reply to alreadybeensaid:

    This last comment was dead serious. Made killing in 2010 from Chinese market.

    If you're not sick, not disabled, not ugly, and still poor in America, then you're a douchebag.

  • In reply to gwill:

    Sorry. I should have read your previous comments before responding. Like they say: Don't feed the trolls.

  • In reply to alreadybeensaid:

    Buy Chinese manufacturing stock, hedge to US consumer market.

    Try it. Not sure why more people aren't doing it.

  • In reply to alreadybeensaid:

    Totally agree with what you're saying here. But how do we change things? Legislation was introduced to cut tax breaks to businesses who outsource overseas and it was shot down, for example. I am a white collar worker and they are able to outsource jobs like mine to India. I speak to people there every day who are doing the same job I am for much less pay. The folks I used to talk with here in the States are out of a job. If we cannot get big business to stop funding our politicians, what will change?

  • In reply to alreadybeensaid:

    I already knew that I was poor, and I have always been very worried about it. I don't have a husband, or children, so I only need to take care of myself. I make $1,710 less than the specified poverty line
    (I have no healthcare, whatsoever). I've been trying to pull myself out of poverty by getting a degree, but I'm so goddamned poor and destitute that I'm ready to drop out of school just to get a second job.

  • In reply to alreadybeensaid:

    To the stupid asshole who's suggesting that we all buy stock in Chineses manufacturing: how would you suggest that a person like me--who has to get her food, toilet paper, and laundry detergent from the food pantry, as well as donate blood for money on the side in order to survive--go about affording to do such a thing? Think before you make a comment.

  • In reply to mztress:

    A couple things here:

    1. You sound emotional, easily angered, with a penchant for calling people "stupid assholes" for suggesting an alternative choice.....all of these are characteristics that are, sadly, keeping you stuck in your situation.

    2. I'm certainly not saying everybody can be rich.

  • In reply to gwill:

    been rich been poor id rather be rich but i dont even have 10$ a month to invest in a mutual fund so go on getting rich buddy. it just helps us so much when even investors are doing it(pun intended) overseas instead of looking in their own back yard. this is from a republican who formerly( had to cash it out) had a 401k. get a life. save a life. when you give money give it to help the community your in. geeze

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