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Report finds single parents, others struggle to make ends meet

Western Massachusetts may be the cheapest place to live in the state, but that doesn’t mean it’s an oasis of affordability.

A new report by Crittenton Women’s Union, a Boston nonprofit, reveals what many families already know: It’s expensive to live in the state and the costs hit single parents the hardest.

In Hampshire County, a single parent with one school-age child and one preschooler needs to earn at least $52,584 a year to pay for food, housing, transportation, child care, health care and other household expenses, according to Crittenton’s most recent Massachusetts Economic Independence Index.

Statewide, the figure is $65,800. That’s a 7 percent increase, or $4,200, since 2010, and is more than three times the federal poverty level and four times the state’s minimum wage, the report found.

“The numbers always come as a surprise to everyone, but we think it’s really important to get a clear understanding about what it takes for people to make ends meet on their own,” said Deborah Youngblood, Crittenton’s vice president of research and innovation. “We want people to know so they have concrete goals they are moving towards.”

The report, completed every three years, also found that in Hampshire County a two-parent family with two young children needs to make $59,170 to meet its basic expenses, compared to the statewide average of $73,775.

A single person, meanwhile, needs to earn $21,500 to make ends meet in the county, compared to a statewide average of $28,500. That’s 60 percent higher than the state’s hourly minimum wage, according to the report.

Youngblood said researchers calculate the figures by pulling data from a variety of sources such as surveys of child care tuition and the rental market. The index is meant to reflect a bare-bones budget and does not factor in public assistance programs. The result is a stark difference between what many people earn and what it costs to support themselves. In recent years, costs have gone up, wages are stagnant and more jobs require higher levels of education and skills, according to Crittenton, which helps low-income women gain financial independence.

“There is no money left over for savings or discretionary spending of any kind — no emergency reserves, debt payment plans or dinners out,” Elisabeth Babcock, president and CEO of Crittenton, said in a statement.

Parents face an especially challenging task to make ends meet because of the high costs for child care, which the Crittenton report found is the largest expense for single parents with a preschooler and school-age child, at 31 percent of the family budget.

Transportation costs also jumped 40 percent and health care 21 percent in the last three years.

While it’s cheaper to live in the four counties of western Massachusetts, Youngblood said the region has more limited job opportunities and its public transportation system isn’t as strong.

“You might think, ‘Gosh, I’m lucky to be living in Franklin County,’ but there are trade-offs,” she said.

To help people work toward earning a wage closer to the Mass. Index, Crittenton also compiled a companion report called Hot Jobs 2013. This report identifies 15 jobs that require two years or less of higher education, pay a family a sustaining wage and are in high demand.

Youngblood said the two reports are designed to be used as a goal-setting tool for families to achieve economic independence.

“We want people making decisions that are very much evidence based,” she said. “We don’t want people wasting their time training for a field where there are no jobs or jobs that don’t pay enough.”

The research is central to Crittenton’s initiatives to help low-income families achieve a more stable future. This includes a five-year pilot program that is having success moving very low-income people into higher-paying careers, home ownership and more, Youngblood said.

Other organizations also use the data in the Mass. Index, including the court system when setting child support rates and food banks when determining the needs in their communities.

“The hard facts on the actual cost of living are crucial when we’re raising public awareness about the causes of hunger and food insecurity,” Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, said in a statement.

According to Morehouse, the Food Bank uses the Crittenton study to present the challenge that households face to support themselves, including putting food on the table.

The complete Mass. Index and Hot Jobs reports includes an online calculator where people can enter their cities and ages of their children to see what they need to earn to cover expenses. To read the report, visit liveworkthrive.org.

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