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When minimum wage is just not enough

Shelly Runyon | 4/14/2010, 6:06 a.m.
Norma Fajardo watches her 3-year-old son eat a morning snack while waiting for the Red Line train to Davis Square. Fajardo is one of thousands of Bay State parents raising a family with below Mass Index wages. Shelly Runyon

Hand in hand, Norma Fajardo, 40, of South Boston and her 3-year-old son walk half a mile to the Andrew MBTA station in Dorchester.

They commute 40 minutes or more each way from their home in the Old Colony Housing Development to her job and nearby day-care center in Davis Square in Cambridge.

They stomp on grates to hear them echo, wave to passing buses and count stairs in Spanish to make the journey fun.

“I haven’t had a car for the past 15 years,” Fajardo said, “But I probably should have one, with him.” Fajardo’s budget only allows $7 in spending money per month; a car is an unlikely purchase in the near-future.

At a time when unemployment rates are in the double digits and the U.S. is suffering through the “Great Recession,” people are struggling more than ever to make ends-meet.

A recent study published by the Crittenton Women’s Union (CWU) found that for a single-adult to be self-sufficient in Massachusetts, they must earn  more than double the state’s current $8 per-hour minimum-wage.

In Fajardo’s case, a single mother with a pre-schooler, the needs are much greater. According to the Massachusetts Economic Independence Index 2010 (Mass Index), she must earn $49,037 per-year, almost three-times the minimum-wage — and that’s  just to cover the basics.

Fajardo’s job as a medical biller for Little Sisters of the Poor in Somerville pays a little more than half that figure.

Though she must rely on government housing and day-care assistance, she said finds inspiration in her son to keep moving forward.  

“I do it all for him,” she explains. “I honestly wish there was at least two more hours in the day, so I can get more done and at least spend more time with him. I know it’s going to get better for us. I keep working hard for him to get us out of here, because this is not where we want to live.”

Because she qualifies for day-care assistance, at $793 per-month, housing is Fajardo’s greatest expense. But for many other working-parents, child care is a major expense. According to the Mass Index the average single-parent pays a minimum of $900 per-month for child-care for one child.

The Mass Index accounts for basic living expenses, including housing, child-care, taxes and other essential items with no allowance for savings.

CWU publishes the Mass Index every three years as a tool to guide low-income residents across the state toward economic independence.

The first report was released in 1998, and since then, the costs of living have increased by almost 50 percent for a single-parent family with one preschooler and one school-age child.

“At the same time these costs have gone up, we have seen a drastic change in the ability to earn that kind of income happen in the Commonwealth,” CWU’s President and CEO Elisabeth D. Babcock said at a press conference to release the latest study.

“We have seen for a single mother with two children, three years ago her average take-home pay was $33,000 a year. Now her average take-home pay is $29,000 and change per-year. We have seen an erosion in those earnings.”