Decades of stagnant wages, rising costs and frequent economic crises in the U.S. have put millions of Americans close to the financial edge. Just to make ends meet, a family with one adult and two children needs to earn an average of $35.80 an hour — a level of income that is beyond what most households across the country are earning, according to a new study from the 2022 County Health Rankings.
Out of the nation’s more than 3,100 counties, only two provide living wages for the average worker, said Keith Gennuso, a lead author of the study. A living wage covers the costs of food, housing, child care, medical care and transportation, but doesn’t provide for retirement savings, higher education costs, emergency savings or other expenditures that can help families secure long-term financial security.
An hourly wage of $35.80 equates to about $74,400 in annual income. The average hourly wage stood at $31.73 in March, or about $66,000 annually, according to the latest government data. That means many families are falling behind in their ability to afford the basics, said Marjory Givens, co-director at the County Health Rankings, which is a program of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
“This is definitely a clear indication that economic security is out of reach for many,” Givens told CBS MoneyWatch. “It is a call to action.”
The two counties where incomes meet or exceed the baseline living wages are Los Alamos County in New Mexico and Williamson County in Tennessee, according to the analysis, which drew on 2021 data from MIT’s Living Wage Calculator from MIT professor Amy Glasmeier. Those two counties “appear to be relatively high-income counties with lower cost of living and good health outcomes,” Givens noted.
Los Alamos County, home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, has a median household income of more than $111,000. Tennessee’s Williamson County, near Nashville, has median household income of about $118,000.
A living wage isn’t uniform across the nation, with some areas — like expensive coastal cities such as New York and Los Angeles — having significantly higher basic costs than other regions. The study found that the lowest living wage stands at $29.81 an hour, which is sufficient for the bare necessities in Holmes County, Mississippi, and ranges up to a high of $65.45 an hour in San Francisco.
Inflation erodes wage gains
Workers are now seeing significant wage gains amid a labor shortage, but those increases areas inflation far outpaces the typical pay hike. That’s putting more workers under financial stress as they seek to regain their footing amid the ongoing pandemic.
The County Health Rankings tapped data from 2021, but doesn’t fully reflect the spike in inflation toward the end of 2021 and into 2022, Givens noted.
At the same time, families continue to be hurt financially by long-term structural issues like sexism and racism, with the report singling out the gender pay gap as detrimental to the well-being of both families and the economy. Women earn about 81 cents for every $1 earned by men, with an even wider gap in the South and Plains states in the West, the study found.
The pandemic exacerbated the financial struggles faced by many women in the workforce, with the female labor force participation rate dropping to a 30-year low. In some cases, that was due to women with children needing to step away from work amid a childcare shortage and other challenges.
“We already knew that women experience discriminatory workplace practices, and our systems don’t support women from being fully able to participate in the workforce,” Givens said. “These are systems and structures we need to attend to.”
Childcare unaffordable in every county
Childcare is generally considered affordable if it costs less than 7% of a household’s income, but the study found no U.S. county where childcare for two children is at or below that threshold. That is a major barrier for families and child care providers themselves, whose low median pay makes it virtually impossible to afford outside care for their own children, the study found.
“It’s likely that a child care provider with two kids couldn’t even afford their own services — it would make up 50% of their income,” Gennuso said.
Older children are also being shortchanged across much of the nation, with the study finding that public schools are underfunded in many parts of the nation, the researchers said. About half of all U.S. counties operate with a public school funding deficit, needing an additional $3,000 per student on average and with the biggest deficits in Southern states.
“We know a well-funded school can put a child on a path to success and a healthy life,” Gennuso said. “Schools need the resources to provide that quality education, and we know that’s not the reality across the U.S.”