I have a friend who has been looking for an apartment. She's in her early 30s, has a young son and works in the service industry at a job that relies on tips to make ends meet. She lives with her parents -- but not out of choice. It's because the cost of housing in our area is well beyond her reach.
And she's not alone.
According to a recent study by the Legal Services of New Jersey's Poverty Research Institute titled "The Real Cost of Living in 2005: The Self-Sufficiency Standard for New Jersey," the average adult with two kids has to earn $17.70 per hour or $37,374 a year to be considered self-sufficient in the state.
According to PRI, the self-sufficiency standard is a better model -- which would be $16,090 -- by which to gauge the actual cost of living in a given area. Unlike the federal poverty line, which is calculated nationally based on the cost of food and takes into account nothing else, the self-sufficiency standard attempts to calculate what families need to earn to pay for food, housing, healthcare, childcare, transportation, clothing and the normal incidentals that most of us take for granted.
The figures vary from region to region, depending on the cost of various services. In Indianapolis, for instance, a family of three would need to earn $16.25 an hour -- or $33,800 a year -- to be self-sufficient, while in Milwaukee the cost balloons to $20.08 an hour or $41,766 a year.
In Middlesex County, N.J., where I live, the PRI calculates self-sufficiency for a family of three at $45,309, while a family of four would need to earn a little more than $50,000, with the figures rising for larger families with older children.
Let's put this in perspective: That is less than $1,000 a week to cover rent and utilities, food, clothing, transportation and child care.
And, yet, it is almost three times the poverty threshold set by the federal government and, more importantly, more than four times what someone working 40 hours a week at a minimum wage job would earn, meaning that there is no way the federal minimum wage can keep a family afloat economically.
Think about it. A single wage-earner making the federal minimum wage earns $206 a week, clearing maybe $175. Two minimum-wage-earners would clear about $350 a week, or just $1,400 a month to cover everything. In New Jersey, the wage will be boosted to $7.15 over the next two years, but even at that wage the prospects can look pretty bleak. Two wage-earners would probably clear just over $480 a week, or $1,920 a month, in a region where it's difficult to find decent housing for less than $1,000 a month.
This is why so many people are turning to soup kitchens and other nonprofits for help. Elijah's Promise Soup Kitchen in New Brunswick, the county seat of Middlesex County, serves about 300 meals a day and about 100,000 a year -- a number that is growing -- to people who live in the region. It provides health screenings, housing and employment assistance, HIV/AIDS and addictions counseling and other services.
Around Christmas time, my friend told me that agencies like Elijah's Promise were designed to provide emergency provisions, but are now serving an even more essential service as workers are forced to choose between food and rent, medicine and transportation.
"Volunteer-based organizations just can't keep up," she says. "It's not an emergency anymore. We're now providing supplemental feeding. People need that to get by."
Peter Wise, a friend who runs the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, puts it bluntly.
"On first thought, this is a great program," he told a reporter at my paper (The Cranbury Press) in December. "But on second consideration: Why is it that in 2004, in the capital city of the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in the world, someone who is working a full-time job has to eat at a soup kitchen?"
You can go town by town and find the same kinds of programs stepping in to provide the kinds of services that should be provided by the states and federal governments.
So while the world has finally woken up to the dire conditions in Africa -- the Live 8 concerts, while mostly an exercise in rock star solipsism, did raise awareness of the horrors of Third World poverty -- we need to make sure we do as much as we can to wake Americans up to the poverty in their own backyards.
After all, how can we allow our citizens -- our neighbors and our friends -- to live on the streets or go hungry when we live in the wealthiest country in the history of the world?
Many of the most effective groups working on the issues of economic need are doing so at the local level. Some can be found at www.grass-roots.org. National groups advocating on behalf of the poor include:
Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, 398 60th St., Oakland, CA 94618; telephone, (510) 654-4400; fax, (510) 654-4551; www.foodfirst.org.
Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, 50 East Washington, Ste. 500, Chicago, IL 60602; telephone, (312) 263-3830; fax, (312) 263-3846; www.povertylaw.org.
Share Our Strength, 1730 M Street NW, Suite 700, Washington, D.C. 20036; telephone, (202) 393-2925/(800) 969-4767; fax, (202) 347-5868; www.strength.org/; e-mail, email@example.com.
Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor living in central New Jersey. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Kalet edits The Other Half literary magazine as part of the Voices of Reason collective, which uses music and literature to raise money for the hungry and homeless in central New Jersey. Voices of Reason can be found at www.voicesofreason.com.