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Beyond 'Surviving': Defining Economic Security

Melba Ware (right) and her husband, Herman, shop for food at a market in Chicago. A new report says American families need to earn  about $68,000 a year to achieve basic economic security — more than three times the national poverty line.
Melba Ware (right) and her husband, Herman, shop for food at a market in Chicago. A new report says American families need to earn about $68,000 a year to achieve basic economic security — more than three times the national poverty line.

As President Obama and members of Congress debate national budgets, Shawn McMahon has been calculating individual and family budgets.

He's the research director for Wider Opportunities for Women, a group that works with low-income women and families. The nonprofit group just released its Basic Economic Security Tables index, which measures the minimum income workers need to achieve basic economic security.

"We're not talking about surviving," McMahon tells Morning Edition host Renee Montagne. "We are talking about economic security that allows people to live day to day without fear of a lot of the economic insecurity that we've been seeing in recent years."

According to the report, to achieve economic security the average minimum income needed for a family with two workers and two young children is $67,920 — that's with both parents working, and earning just over $16 an hour.

And a single worker with no children needs to make about $30,000 a year, which means working full-time and earning twice the minimum wage.

"We're more interested in people moving up the ladder so that they are at a place where they can meet their basic expenses and they can save a little bit to prevent them from ever falling back into poverty," McMahon says.

The index includes a range of monthly expenses including housing, utilities, food, transportation, child care, basic personal and household items, health care, taxes, and emergency savings and retirement savings.

It does not include middle-class amenities such as vacations, dinners at restaurants, flat-screen TVs, cable subscriptions, movie tickets or other entertainment.

The biggest expense is generally housing and utilities.

"However, once a family has two or more children, then child care is often a bigger expense," McMahon says.

The income requirements in the index are about three times more than the federal poverty line, which is $21,756 for a family of four and $10,956 for an individual.

"The federal poverty level was actually developed about 50 years ago on a very basic assumption on what families needed to buy food," McMahon says. "So, the federal poverty level bears little resemblance to reality. It didn't many years ago, and it doesn't today."

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