When the choice came to working hard just to narrowly make childcare payments, or staying home full-time with her three children in their subsidized housing, it made more economic sense for Salimah Jamison to give up her job.
“You have to choose between paying for your necessities versus paying for childcare,” the single Columbia mother said. “But in order to work to pay your bills, you have to have them in childcare. It’s a Catch-22.”
Self-sufficiency was seemingly unattainable for Jamison, as it is for many low-income families in South Carolina, according to a new report published by the United Way Association of South Carolina. People’s struggles to make a living on minimum wage also is a hot topic in the contentious presidential campaign.
The cost of living adequately without help from family, friends, service providers or the government is in many cases double or triple the baselines of minimum wage and the federal poverty level. And in Columbia, the cost of self-sufficiency is higher than almost any comparably sized Southern city, according to the report.
“There’s so much more that we all need to do collectively to help people earn a living wage,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “It’s got to be done because of the kind of growth we’re seeing. ... You can quickly become a city of people who can’t afford to live there and people who can’t afford to leave.”
The United Way report presents what it calls the self-sufficiency standard, or the cost of living by bare-minimum standards, for a range of family types in every county in South Carolina. The self-sufficiency standard considers the costs of housing, childcare, food, transportation, healthcare, minimal miscellaneous expenses and taxes.
For a single adult with a preschooler and a school-aged child in Richland County, the self-sufficiency standard is $41,861 per year, or $19.82 hourly. That’s nearly three times the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and more than twice the federal poverty level for a family of three.
You can quickly become a city of people who can’t afford to live there and people who can’t afford to leave. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin
“We have this myth of the welfare family,” said Kirk Foster, an assistant professor of social work at the University of South Carolina. “The reality is that many of these families have to work extra hard to make ends meet. Even though you may be receiving some kind of federal or state benefits, you still have a lot of work to do.”
Even while working, making ends meet on her own was out of the question only two years ago for Jamison, now 34.
“I fell on hard times,” she said. “It’s not that I was unintelligent or didn’t have the education or came from a poor family. It was none of that. I just made bad decisions throughout my early adulthood that kind of trickled over into my middle adulthood.
“I didn’t know what to do.”
‘They’re not getting handouts’
For Lakeysha Henry, a 38-year-old mother of three teenagers, earning $10 an hour at a part-time restaurant job is the best she can do right now as a recovering addict with a criminal record. Transportation and her past are two of the biggest hurdles she faces in finding a better-paying job to support her family.
“Self-sufficient for me is being able to take care of my family ... having the tools and the knowledge and also money to take care of my family,” she said. “Everybody needs a little help.”
These families are working. They’re doing everything they’re supposed to be doing. They’re not getting handouts. Lila Anna Sauls, St. Lawrence Place
The key is that Henry and others among the “working poor” are in fact working, said Lila Anna Sauls, president and CEO of Trinity Housing Corp., which operates the St. Lawrence Place transitional housing program and community where Henry and her three children share a two-bedroom apartment.
“I get mad when people think that our families are worthless, that they won’t pull their fair share,” Sauls said. “These families are working. They’re doing everything they’re supposed to be doing. They’re not getting handouts.”
If anything, the self-sufficiency standard illustrates that the federal poverty level, one of the most common baseline measures to qualify for social services and income assistance, is a “primitive” and inadequate way to determine a family’s true needs, said Mac Bennett, president and CEO of United Way of the Midlands.
Service providers and policymakers could instead consider the self-sufficiency standard in deciding who is eligible for assistance such as reduced-cost medical care, childcare subsidies and housing assistance, Bennett said. But that could pose a supply-and-demand challenge for social services providers, he noted.
“We do all we can now, but this could change the model as far as how you could qualify (for services),” Bennett said.
$41,861 Self-sufficiency standard income for one adult, one preschooler and one school-aged child in Richland County
$21,535 Full-time minimum wage income with tax credits
$20,160 Federal poverty level for a family of three
Housing assistance was a “stabilizing force” for Jamison’s family, said Taleshia Stewart, the director of homeownership and the Family Self-Sufficiency program for the Columbia Housing Authority.
Family Self-Sufficiency, a federally funded program, helps people living in public or subsidized housing move toward self-sufficiency by rewarding them financially. The goal for many program participants, including Jamison, is homeownership.
“She needed assistance with housing while she worked on those goals she had,” Stewart said of Jamison. “We gave her that part. ... But she came with everything else. She came with the will. She came with the drive. She came with the perseverance.”
Housing assistance and other programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, childcare subsidies and tax credits help accomplish one of the goals suggested by the self-sufficiency standard report: lowering the cost of living.
It’s certainly not about reducing Medicaid. It’s not about stripping (earned income tax credits) from families. Kirk Foster, USC College of Social Work
“If we are serious about self-sufficiency,” said Foster, “then we have to take a hard look at the barriers to becoming self sufficient. It’s certainly not about reducing Medicaid. It’s not about stripping (earned income tax credits) from families.
“It’s not about a handout, either. It’s about thinking collectively as a society about how can we care for those who face the biggest societal challenges.”
The other side of closing the gap between low wages and self-sufficiency, the United Way report says, is to increase families’ wage-earning potential.
It’s not necessarily a matter of raising minimum wage, Bennett said, but creating “an environment where we’re teaching people ... the hard skills and soft skills they need to succeed.”
Bennett stressed the need to educate and train more South Carolina workers to be qualified for higher-wage jobs and the need to recruit more higher-wage jobs they can access. Those goals will feed off one another, he said.
For Jamison, earning her Master’s degree in mental health counseling in 2012 gave her a boost in the job market. It took two years of weekend schooling and two more years after graduating her program to find a full-time job that suited her. But now she’s working for the state Department of Mental Health as well as part-time at Transitions homeless shelter in downtown Columbia.
As of last month, Jamison became a first-time homeowner, finally realizing her own definition of self-sufficiency.
“Life is perfect right now,” she said.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.
In Richland County
Examples of self-sufficiency standard incomes
One adult: $21,678 annually, or $10.26 hourly
One adult, one preschooler: $35,636 annually, or $16.87 hourly
One adult, one preschooler, one school-aged child: $41,861 annually, or $19.82 hourly
Two adults, one preschooler, one school-aged child: $49,447 annually, or $11.71 hourly per adult
Source: The Self-Sufficiency Standard for South Carolina 2016
The federal poverty level for a family of three is $20,090 and for a family of four is $24,250.
Area median family income varies by county but is calculated based on HUD’s FY2015 Low Income Limit (50 percent of median family income).
Median Household Incomes
Richland County: $48,674
Lexington County: $54,170
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, based on 2014 estimates