To survive in Philadelphia without food stamps or other government assistance, a family of four needs to make nearly $60,000 a year - a hard-to-fathom "sticker-shock" number that shows how expensive life has become.
According to a study being released Thursday, two adults with one preschooler and one school-age child have to take in $59,501 a year to live on a bare-bones budget in the city. In 2008, the same family of four needed $53,611 to make it in Philadelphia.
That's the word from the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Pennsylvania, a highly respected University of Washington analysis that comes out every two years.
The problem is that nearly 62 percent of Philadelphia households take in less than $50,000 a year, according to census data analyzed by Dave Elesh, a sociologist at Temple University.
Life is pricier in the suburban counties, where the same-size family needs to take in even more money to survive without assistance. Salaries must range from $62,543 in Delaware County to $71,846 in Bucks County for a family to achieve self-sufficiency. A similar study for New Jersey in 2008 put the self-sufficiency incomes at $60,912 in Burlington County, $49,739 in Camden County, and $56,752 in Gloucester County.
A family of four is considered poor if it makes $22,050 a year - the federal poverty level.
That measure, which has been used for nearly 50 years, has long been criticized as failing to take a full measure of what it costs to live in America.
The level, based on how Americans lived in the 1960s, does not take into account costs of child care, health care, transportation, and housing. Also, the level is the same throughout the continental United States, failing to consider variations in cost based on geography. For example, it costs more to live in San Francisco than in Williamsport, Pa., but the federal poverty level is the same in both places.
U.S. policymakers have used the federal poverty level to track what a family needs, and programs such as food stamps are based on it.
The $60,000 figure reveals that there are many more people who are having trouble making it, said Carol Goertzel, president and chief executive of PathWays PA, a Delaware County advocacy group for which the standard was prepared.
Advocates say the Pennsylvania study demonstrates that years of stagnating wages and growing income inequality have taken a toll, making it harder for working people to survive.
"Everybody is feeling hard times right now because of the recession," said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. "We like to blame and judge certain people and say they're poor" because of inner failings, Morgan said. "But in the past couple of years, we see it can happen to anybody. This study is a wake-up call."
Unable to stretch their wages to cover basic necessities, families lack adequate income to meet the costs of food, housing, transportation, and health and child care, wrote sociologist Diana Pearce, who prepared the study. These families are "nevertheless not deemed poor by the official federal poverty measure," she added.
Called the "Cadillac of standards" by the Economic Policy Institute, the Self-Sufficiency Standard is used by legislators, employers, and unions to calculate real-life costs.
When one first encounters the standard, there is a "sticker shock," noted Marianne Bellesorte, director of policy at PathWays PA. Nearly $60,000 seems like a huge amount of money just to survive, she said.
"But these numbers are accurate," she said, "and actually quite conservative."
Since 2008, costs for child care and food in Philadelphia have gone up 8 percent each, while health care has shot up 22 percent and housing has risen 23 percent, according to Goertzel.
Philadelphia is now the fourth-most-expensive U.S. city to live in, behind New York City, Boston, and Chicago, according to the study.
"Too often we say the poor can make it on $10,000 or so a year," said Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth. "But the study shows how terribly tight it is for many families. It costs a great deal when you want to do the best for your children."