Measuring the cost of living in Pennsylvania

With the coming election, and each candidate’s focus on securing a larger block of the middle class vote, it is no surprise that the economy seems to dominate discussion and foster debate. In a recent study for the state of Pennsylvania, research suggests that although the Great Recession has officially been declared over, its impact continues to be felt by the majority of families across the country.

PathWays PA, a community services provider and anti-poverty advocacy group based in the Greater Philadelphia Region, released a new study earlier this week, Overlooked and Undercounted 2012: Impact of the Great Recession as Measured by the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Pennsylvania. The report – developed by the University of Washington and the Center for Women’s Welfare – looks at the cost of living for a standard family, calculated for each county across the state. The study utilizes a Self-Sufficiency Standard, as opposed to the Federal Poverty Limit, looking at all major budget items such as housing, child care, food, health care, transportation, and taxes. The methodology offers a more geographically and age specific estimation of a family’s living expenses (as opposed to the fixed nationwide measure). The standard aims to evaluate how much income is needed to adequately meet basic needs, without supplemental public or private assistance. The directive of this new report intends to explain how, even without major shocks to a family’s situation (i.e. job loss or foreclosure); the economic downturn has made it harder for families to meet their basic needs (in PA about 1 in 4 households lack sufficient income to do so).

Highlighted Statistics from the study (based on the 2010 American Community Survey):

  • The 2012-2013 Self-Sufficiency Standard for one parent with one preschooler ranges from $25,697 to $53,410 annually
  • 42.2% of Philadelphia’s households are living below the standard (compared to only 22.3% living below the federal poverty level) – Allentown (42%), Pittsburgh (31.7%), and Erie (18.7%).
  • 24.6% of households statewide are living below the standard (10.9% are below fed. pov. level)
  • Median income for households below the Standard: $15,000
  • Median income for households above the Standard: $46,000
  • Expenses (as a % of total costs): housing/child care (32%), taxes (12%), food (17%), housing (16%), health care (9%), miscellaneous household items (8%), and transportation (6%).

(Read more interesting statistics from the PathWay study here)

Though the Annual Self-Sufficiency Wage limit tends to be lowest in the middle of the state, the percent of people living below the standard is approximately balanced between urban and rural residents. The highest wage standards are not surprisingly, concentrated in the Philadelphia metro region where, an adequate income for a family of four reaches above $70,000 (see the Philly Inquirer from Tuesday morning). The report goes on to provide breakdowns by gender, race, employment status, employment industry, age, family type, and education. Also provided are proportions of households with inadequate income that receive public assistance, have health insurance, and receive food stamps.

So, what does this mean for our understanding of poverty and the financial woes of families across Pennsylvania? The study states that, “while the [Federal Poverty Level] identifies 355,936 households as “poor,” nearly 840,000 households lack enough income to meet all basic needs… that translates to over 2.3 million men, women, and children struggling to make ends meet in Pennsylvania.” Using PolicyMap we can look at the geographic distribution of this gap to help us think about how the changing cost of living is affecting the communities we live and work in. Take a look under the Money & Income tab, where you can map the percent of households in each income bracket compared to families living below the poverty line. There is a wealth of other relevant indicators, from allocations of food stamps (under the Money & Income tab) to housing cost burden (under the Owner & Renters tab) to wages earned by industry (under the Jobs & Economy tab).