With Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislative leaders poised for the year’s first serious, bipartisan budget conversation on the state’s core services and what it can afford to spend, the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women has released a report illustrating the importance of the social safety net on the ability of families to thrive in the state.
Carolyn Treiss, executive director of the commission, said lawmakers in the room Monday for the first budget discussions need to be aware of what working people in the state are up against in the struggle to make a living — not just anecdotally or on average, but among different family types in every region of the state.
“We don’t know what’s going to be on the chopping block,” Treiss said. “. . . but if social services and safety net programs are on the table, the impact to families that are receiving those supports is going to be great.”
Spending cuts to hospitals, the Department of Developmental Services, and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services were proposed by Malloy and widely panned by lawmakers last month when the governor first announced $103 million in budget cuts. Last week, Malloy announced another $120 million more in cuts to fight continuing Wall Street woes and a ballooning state deficit.
Social service advocates at the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women say the report is an evidence-based way to help guide legislators’ decision making. It uses the “Self Sufficiency Standard” to analyze how much income a family must earn to meet basic needs without relying on public or private assistance.
The cost of living identified in the report has risen an average of 32 percent statewide since 2005. In some parts of the state, like the northwest corner, it’s gone up between 15 and 28 percent; in others, like the southeast corner, it’s gone up between 39 and 46 percent.
“Public policy can’t be built on hunches, it has to be built on real data,” Christine Palm, the commission’s communication director, said. “We do this kind of data analysis to arm [legislators] with the facts so that when they make decisions they can know what the consequences are.”
The report examines eight different family configurations in 23 regions of the state to show what self sufficiency looks like for the state’s diverse population.
Take a single adult with one preschool-aged child, for instance. In lower Fairfield County, that person would need to make $36.84 per hour to get by without assistance. That’s compared to the $21.14 per hour it would take to eke out a living on the opposite side of the state known as the Quiet Corner.
And while a single adult in Bridgeport could almost get by at minimum wage — it would take $10.27 to be fully self sufficient — the situation changes drastically when children are introduced into the picture.
That same adult would have to make $30.75 per hour while raising a preschooler and a school-aged child, with child care costs taking up 31 percent of the family budget.
The self sufficiency standard does not take into account expenses for recreation, entertainment, savings, or debt repayment. The standard also assumes workers in cities with adequate public transportation —Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven — are using those services instead of driving their own cars.
The standard yields more targeted results than the cost-of-living framework applied through the United States government’s traditional economic analysis, according to Treiss.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index measures the average changes in prices paid by urban consumers for goods and services. The self-sufficiency standard, however, looks only at basic expenses and compares them across all of the state’s geographies.
The report is also more specific than the living wage analysis published earlier this month by the Alliance for a Just Society. The living wage study looked at several family types to determine how much each unit would have to earn to meet basic living expenses while saving for emergencies and retirement, but did not account for regional variations throughout the state.
Treiss credits the targeted geographical approach for its ability to help policymakers better understand the impact of their actions on different populations. “We have such wealth disparity that if you don’t look at things geographically, you’re really missing a lot of the story,” she said.
The report analyzed the top 10 most common occupations in the state to find that 80 percent of those workers — many of them in the service sector — do not earn enough money to support their families. Workers in those 10 occupations comprise 20 percent of the state’s population.
While the commission’s report did not make broader statements about how many Connecticut families fall below the self-sufficiency threshold, a 2014 United Way study found that 35 percent of households in the state struggle to make ends meet. The United Way used a self-sufficiency metric they named ALICE, which is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.
The ALICE study found that more than 50 percent of households in four of the state’s largest cities — New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford, and Waterbury — could not get by on income alone.
Closing the gap between wages earned and the amount needed to sustain a family requires two things, according to the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women’s study: raising income and reducing the financial burden on families.
Raising income means setting public policy to increase workers’ incomes through a higher minimum wage and benefits such as paid family medical leave. Reducing family costs means offering programs like child care assistance, food benefits, and the Earned Income Tax Credit to help attain self sufficiency over time.
Treiss said paid family and medical leave is a key issue when it comes to women’s participation in the workforce.
“When those women don’t have the ability to take time out of the workforce for health/life events for themselves or their families, they leave the workforce,” she said. “They lose their jobs.”
Lawmakers in June approved budget language that allocated $140,000 in 2016 to look at how the state should go about implementing a plan that allows workers to earn income while taking time off for illness, to bond with new children, or to care for sick family members.
The Office of Policy and Management is in the process of finalizing a contract with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) to serve as the consulting firm, according to the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.
“Even though we fully understand the reality of the budget situation, we hope the administration sees paid leave as an essential piece in families’ security, as is reflected by the debates nationally. The IWPR analysis would be the crucial first step,” Treiss said.
The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Connecticut 2015 was produced by the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington for the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women. It’s the third edition of the study focused on Connecticut.