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Adequate wages crucial for self-sufficiency

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By Gabriela Cervantes

I am an avid reader and will eagerly peruse almost anything in front of me. But few things I read leave me as intrigued about the world around me as the recently-released report commissioned and funded by the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona, How much is enough in your county? The self-sufficiency standard for Arizona 2012. The findings of this report are so eye-opening and have such far-reaching effects for Arizonans, it is difficult to know where to begin.

First of all, what is the purpose of the report? It determines the income level needed for a family to meet its basic needs without using private or public assistance. Two important variables in calculating this income level, which can vary drastically, are where the family lives and what the composition of the family is. For example, a family with one adult and a preschooler in Pima County will need to earn $18.21 an hour to meet its basic needs. However, the hourly wage to meet self-sufficiency for a family consisting of one adult, a preschooler and a school-aged child in Maricopa County is $24.20. Why does the family composition matter so much when determining wages for self-sufficiency? It’s all a matter of a family’s stage in life. Working adults will spend much more on child care the younger the child is, especially if the child is a preschooler. As the family dynamics change, so does its self-sufficiency income level.

Another important thing to understand is what is considered a basic need. The Self-Sufficiency Standard describes basic needs as housing, child care, food, health care, transportation and miscellaneous (telephone and over-the-counter prescriptions, for example). As much as they feel like basic needs, cable, take-out, restaurant meals, internet service, vacations and student loan repayments are not basic needs, according to the report. Adding insult to injury, the cost of basic needs has increased 31 percent over the last 10 years, while incomes have increased only 19 percent.

While most of us have heard of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), what we are now finding is that the FPL is several times lower than the self-sufficiency standard. According to the FPL, a family of three (one adult and two children) is considered poor at $19,090 per year. The FPL, which hasn’t been updated since 1970, doesn’t take into consideration the geographic location, family composition, increasing cost for basic needs, or changing needs of a family.

So what does all this mean for Hispanics? As a Hispanic woman, I am concerned that many Hispanic families, especially those led by females, are barely, if at all, able to earn enough to meet the basic needs of their families. But this dilemma extends beyond ethnicity. Many Arizona families are simply not self-sufficient, and they are unable to find jobs that lead to self-sufficiency.

This brings me to the next point. The most common jobs in Arizona are far below the self-sufficiency standards for just about every family type. Of the top 10 most common occupations, only two (registered nurses and general/operations managers) provide wages that are above self-sufficiency standards. It is this finding in which there is so much potential for change. Legislators and organizations have an opportunity to bring higher-paying jobs into the state and to develop programs that help further people’s education so that they are able to qualify for higher-wage jobs.

Closing the gap between real wages and self-sufficiency wages can only be achieved by reducing costs and increasing income. By understanding the implications of this report, people can understand how their families are affected and what they can do to become self-sufficient. Increasing one’s education level is extremely important, as is pressing one’s legislators to support funding for programs, such as KidsCare and child care subsidies, that alleviate strains on families until they are able to achieve self-sufficiency. Ordinary people have the power to make a difference for themselves and other Arizona families. Knowledge is power indeed.

Find the full How much is enough in your county? The self-sufficiency standard for Arizona 2012 report at womengiving.org

Gabriela Cervantes is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Eller School of Management, where she received both a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a master’s degree in business administration (MBA). She currently serves as a board member of the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona.

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