By Laura McClure
How come people don't want to live here?
Over the past decade, my county, Delaware, lost one percent of its population, according to the 2010 Census. Chenango County lost two percent, while Otsego County was up slightly, by one percent. The net exodus from upstate New York has people worrying about "brain drain" and a loss of representation in Albany and Washington.
So, what's the problem? Why are people moving out of _ and not moving into _ our area?
Of course the short answer is, "No jobs!"
No kidding. In Delaware County, the official unemployment rate (which doesn't take into account involuntarily part-time workers or people who have stopped looking) is 9.6 percent. In Otsego County, it's 9.1 percent.
Then again, a lot of people around here have too many jobs. One guy we know works at a local supermarket part-time _ and then runs off to Walmart for Job No. 2. Then there's the nice woman at the convenience store who _ hello! _ you see the next day working another convenience store counter down the road. She has strung together three jobs, all paying close to minimum wage, none with any benefits to speak of. And yet, she's working up to 60 hours a week.
The federal minimum wage is now $7.25 an hour _ just $290 a week. Back in 1968, the minimum wage stood at $8.54, when calculated in today's dollars. Even then, though, it was hard to live on.
Fortunately, most people in our area do make more than the minimum wage. The average weekly wage in Delaware County is $668, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (and $10 more in Otsego County). That's almost $35,000 per year _ more than $16 an hour.
But of course, that's just an average. Some workers do much better: In Delaware County, construction workers average $840 a week. People in education earn an average of $709. But if you're in "arts, entertainment and recreation," you make an average of just $315 a week. And if you're in hotel or food services in Delaware County _ and many people are _ you get just $236 a week. These people are making an average of $12,272 a year _ and to top it off, they often don't get benefits.
If that's the kind of job on offer, no wonder people are moving away. How can you live on $12,000 a year?
According to a new report commissioned by Wider Opportunities for Women, you can't. This nonprofit organization regularly commissions a respected study called BEST (Basic Economic Security Tables), which calculates the bare minimum an individual or family needs to budget for housing, food, heat _ the basics.
The BEST study found that a single worker needs, on average, at least $30,012 a year_ that's $577 a week _ to make it. But if you're a single parent supporting one young child, you need at least $46,368 ($891 per week).
So there you go, workers of Delaware and Otsego counties: You can make it! Just don't have kids.
Looking at BEST's budget makes you think about the cost of living in a cold, rural place. We can probably make the BEST budget's rent: $688 per month. The average rent in Delaware County is $518. But I know of no one who has whittled his utilities down to the BEST budget's $149 a month. We'd freeze!
And transportation in our area is a killer. Do you know of anyone who spends less than $495 per month on transportation, if you include the cost of buying, repairing and insuring the car, not to mention depreciation?
But it's when you have kids that things get really hard. The BEST study says that the "high cost of quality child care is the greatest
threat to many families' security, and in many places across the country the cost of childcare threatens a second parent's ability to work and increase family income."
The BEST budget has a family with one pre-schooler and one school-aged child paying $1,080 per month for child care.
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If you're a restaurant worker making $12,000 a year, that doesn't exactly add up. It could be a wash _ except that to get to your job, you're spending a fortune on gas.
Health insurance is of course another crazy wildcard. BEST calculates that if the employer provides benefits, a family of four pays at least $443 a month for health care. If the employer doesn't provide it, they pay $667. That's $8,000 a year, just for health care. Even if you're making the Delaware County average of about $30,000 a year, that's a huge bite.
Clearly, it doesn't have to be this way, since Americans spend twice as much on health care as people in other industrialized countries, and get worse care. (In most other developed countries, the government insures everyone, which turns out to be more cost-efficient _ and healthy.) In short, in our area expenses are high, but pay is low.
To keep people here, and attract new people, of course we want jobs, jobs, jobs.
But what we really need are good ones.
Laura McClure is a freelance editor and writer. She lives in Bovina Center.