ECONOMY: Across Maryland, bare-bones household budgets soar above salaries

The national trend toward desperation

“It is true wages are stagnant nationwide, and these sort of good industrial jobs for low-skilled workers are basically unavailable now,” said John Ham, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“In terms of social programs, it’s certainly clear it’s not getting easier to be poor in America with all these budget cuts. Poor people don’t vote as much, so they’re much easier to cut than Social Security.

“And with an election looming, who votes and whom politicians pay attention to are critical pieces in this cost equation,” Ham said.

The national poverty rate stands at about 15.1 percent, meaning 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty — the highest number recorded in more than 50 years.

The federal poverty level, calculated by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, is set at $19,090 for a family of three in Maryland.

“The poverty measure is an inadequate measure of what people need to meet all their basic needs,” Pearce said. “In particular, the poverty measure hasn’t kept up with how needs have changed.”

The costs of working, including transportation and child care, were negligible when the poverty line was developed nearly half a century ago. The measure has failed to take demographic and economic changes into account, Pearce said.

And while the self-sufficiency standard is two to four times greater than the federal poverty level, Pearce said the findings might be too conservative, as they do not include expenses such as extracurricular and recreational activities, fast food and restaurant meals, and cable TV or phone service.

Despite the effects of the recession, the cost of living has seen a steady increase during the past decade. Although tax cuts and tax credits signed into law by President George W. Bush initially hid the growing disparity between wages and expenses, the gap continues to grow, Pearce said.

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