Related: 'The worst time of my life': The job hunt remains a struggle

Interview: Joan Kuriansky

Friday, September 16th, 2011 

Joan Kuriansky, executive director of Wider Opportunities for Women, talks about how raising the minimum wage could be an effective way to ensure the working poor have enough to make ends meet. Among its programs, Wider Opportunities for Women develops independent indices of what it takes to make ends meet. The organization has just launched the Basic Economic Security Tables, or BEST Tables. Below is an edited transcript of a recent interview conducted by Naima Ramos-Chapman.

Ok, well tell me about the BEST tables.

Wider Opportunities for Women, through our 45-year history, has increasingly found that it is important to put concrete numbers of what it takes to make ends meet to discussions about policies and then to the real lives of women and their families.

And to that end, WOW has developed in the course of the last 15 years three different income measures on a continuum, a life long continuum, of what it takes to make ends meet. We started in conjunction with our research partner ... that was in part a reaction to the very inaccurate, out of date, anachronistic federal poverty level which is, as you may know, is a level that is based on a food budget multiplied by three.

Even those of us who eat a lot of gourmet food meals out, will never be spending 30 percent of our day-to-day budget on food. ... It is really a measure of deprivation. It has nothing to do with what the real costs of living are.

So our first effort was in building a bare-bones budget called the self sufficiency standard. The next thing we looked at is what it took for seniors to make ends meet, and we developed an Elder Economic Security Index. Most recently we have released the BEST tables, the Basic Economic Security Tables, and what we intend to do with this is look at what the costs are for individuals and families, 400 different types of families ... of what it takes to be economically secure over a lifetime.

So first we look at the cost of daily living broken down by cost, like housing, healthcare, food, transportation, childcare, taxes--we look at the cost of healthcare relative to different situations, one where you have employer based healthcare, and one when you do not. Families of one, to families with two breadwinners and up to six kids. A particular interest, as it relates to low-income women, are the costs related to a single mom with two kids. We do breakdown different categories of different ages of kids, because it does have tremendous implications in terms of child care.

You think of a mom and two kids by herself. She may have to get one to preschool. She may have to get the other one to school. She has to arrange for after-care if she is working. She has to go to the food market at least once a month. The costs of transportation are very demanding and that's a reason why we include transportation as one of the costs, and again, depending on where you live, it can become a very significant part of your budget.

What kind of legislation would you propose using the BEST?

The first is decent wages. In the extent of which we can help folks who are playing by the rules, who are trying to find jobs that are going to pay them the kind of wages are going to enable them to take care of themselves and their families.

What we found is that even for a single worker without any family, in order for him or her to just make ends meet to be secure as we have defined it ... requires an hourly wage of about $14 an hour.

There are many many job, particularly those where women dominate, where they are gong to get closer to minimum wage, which is half of what a single worker needs. Now, if you are a mom with two kids, on average you would need to work four, full-time minimum wage jobs to meet this basic economic security income. That’s almost impossible. So the government investing in job training, the government investing in community colleges, supporting students who are trying to go to school ... are important policy goals.

It is so ironic that in some of the discussion about job creation, we are hearing of cuts in public service jobs. Well, that means you are cutting jobs that we already have in place, and that are good jobs, as well as helping the community by providing whatever services are being provided by those jobs.

The other thing about women ... I think we get confused in what we see in the media in both in news reporting and TV and movies, which suggest that women are really making it now. And it is true that if you are in the privileged rank of Americans who can afford to go to college, women are really a greater percentage going to college every day. But the majority of women who are in middle, low, and poverty-level households are not getting that experience so they end up getting stuck in very few jobs that on average pay vey little.

How has funding affected WOW’s ability to serve their clients?

It’s operating on a shoe string of what it operated before, and that is a problem because we are not going to able to train these women for the workplace for those jobs that are really going to be good jobs.

We’ve had an extraordinary rate with Building Futures in terms of the percentage of folks who have been able to get jobs, and that’s because we have a very comprehensive program that not only provides skill building, but we help with job placement.

There is nothing wrong with public sector jobs. It helped us get out of the big depression back in the '40s. They are jobs. They are jobs with two benefits, one they are paying people so that they can get by and they also have a byproduct of providing benefits and services to others in the community. So why there has been this reluctance even on the part of the administration to use public service jobs is a shame. My personal opinion is that the Recovery Act was brilliant. It never got the credit it was due. It was brilliant because it did create the incentive for new kinds of jobs with its focus on green, and it did create a mechanism to support states and local governments and to create firefighters and social workers and police officers and teachers. And it also provided a bridge for the most vulnerable folks in terms of increases in some public supports like food stamps. It was a brilliant bill from my perspective; it looked at all three elements that needed to be put together to get America to work and to help those who were struggling despite making the best efforts that they could.

I think we need another recovery act. It’s disgusting when you read about how corporate profits have just escalated at the expense of workers. Workers salaries have not increased. New workers have not been hired. But the profits keep getting bigger.

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Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.


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Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.