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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on October 18th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 33 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 19, Issue 33

Officials hold roundtable with United Way about its Real Cost Measure Index

By Spencer Cole

A collection of local business owners, politicians, and community leaders took part in a roundtable on Oct. 15 to discuss how best to determine if a family or individual is living below the federal poverty line. 

"Imagine you're part of a family of four; two adults, one infant, and one school-aged child," said Henry Gascon, director of program and policy development for United Ways of California. He told the crowd assembled that day it was important to take into account a plethora of factors when calculating if a family is struggling to make ends meet. 

"We need to think about what it would cost to have that family of four anywhere in Santa Barbara County," Gascon added. "What do they need to survive? What would be their monthly food cost? What would their house or apartment cost? How much would transportation cost?" 

These are all factors included in United Way's Real Cost Measure Index, which the nonprofit with branches all across the country touts as the most accurate and complete measure for determining if a family is living in poverty. 

United Way touted its Real Cost Measure index as a better alternative to the current method for calculating the Federal Poverty Line during a roundtable at Allan Hancock College on Oct. 15. Pictured: A pair of homeless Santa Ynez riverbed residents who were served eviction notices from the Lompoc Police Department in August.

United Way pulled data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and combed through records of fair market rents, low-cost food plans, and consumer expenditure surveys from the U.S. Census.

United Way also looked at the state's Department of Education child care data to get as full a picture about struggling demographics as possible. 

The measure index estimates the amount of income required to meet basic needs for a given household type in a specific community. It then builds a "bare-bones" budget that reflects "constrained yet reasonable" choices for essential expenses: housing, food, transportation, health care, taxes, and child care. 

"A couple years ago we started talking about an unignorable campaign, which would create unignorable results," said Eddie Taylor, CEO for United Way of Northern Santa Barbara County. "What we are talking about today is unignorable data points." 

Some of those data points include more that 41,000 households countywide living below the Real Cost Measure. The number translates to roughly 40 percent of all households in the entire county struggling to buy bare essentials. Families with children under the age of 6 also are struggling in Santa Barbara County, with as many 66 percent of those households below the cost measure. 

And it's not as if these families aren't working, Taylor said. According to United Way's data, 97 percent of all households below the Real Cost Measure have at least one working adult. 

"So they are working," Gascon said, before arguing that the stereotype of poor families just sitting around waiting for welfare checks was more myth than reality. 

Since the Johnson administration declared a war on poverty in 1964, the U.S. government has measured struggling populations with primarily a simple formula based off the cost of food for a family of four.

But it doesn't take into account geographical differences, Gascon explained. And the cost of living is far different in Alabama compared to California. 

The federal government is aware of this, according to United Way. But officials are always hesitant to change a formula that could "create" more poor people. 

"It's a sensitive issue and we understand that," Gascon said. "What politician wants more poor people on their watch?"

Business and community leaders in attendance on Oct. 15 expressed surprise at the sheer volume of struggling families in the Central Coast county 

"This is kind of stunning," said Glenn Morris, president of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce. 

Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino called for more education and outreach efforts to help bridge the language barrier so at-risk groups could better communicate with the city's social workers about their problems. She spoke of a "need for people being able to speak English." 

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said it was important to push the next generation of students to pursue the highest levels of education. 

"Your life earnings change substantially and your life experience changes substantially the more education you receive," he added. 

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