Wages Not Enough for Some Ohio Families

Columbus Dispatch - August 20, 2001

Group finds workers above poverty level require aid to get by

Columbus Dispatch

When Joshua and Shalon Jarrell married four years ago, they never expected they’d need government assistance to provide for their children.

They always thought they’d be able to afford the wants and needs of their sons — Joshua, 4, and Caleb, 23 months — on their own. But unexpected medical bills two years ago changed everything.

Now they’re part of the more than 20 percent of Ohio working families with children younger than 12 who do not earn enough money to provide basic needs, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Mr. Jarrell had been out of the Navy five months and was without insurance when his lung collapsed in January 1999.

Struggling and saddled with $4,000 in medical bills, the family moved to Canal Winchester from Mount Airy, N.C., last summer to attend World Harvest Bible College.

They used credit cards to pay for food and turned to the Franklin County Jobs and Family Services Department for help.

“It’s wonderful assistance, but I don’t want to be on assistance,” Shalon Jarrell said. “I want to afford everything we need. It just seems that the harder we try, the harder it is.”

They receive Medicaid, food stamps, a child-care subsidy and vouchers through the Women, Infants and Children program.

Mr. Jarrell is the breadwinner, earning $8 an hour as front-desk clerk at the AmeriHost Inn near their apartment. He’s on pace to earn $16,640, before taxes, this year.

Their monthly gross income of about $1,300 puts them just above the federal poverty line of $1,210 for a family of four and thousands below what a recent study says they need to to provide the basics: food, housing, health care, child care and transportation.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., a family of four living in central Ohio needs to earn $33,655 a year to make it on their own.

Researchers used figures from the U.S. departments of Housing and Urban Development and Agriculture, the Internal Revenue Service and the Children’s Defense Fund to tabulate the food, housing, health-care, child-care and transportation costs in more than 400 U.S. cities.

More than 20 percent of Ohio working families with children younger than 12 do not earn enough money to provide basic needs. Minimum budgets for a family of four vary from $34,531 in the Cleveland area to $31,050 in Youngstown.

“A minimum-wage job does not provide the money these families need to provide these necessities,” said Heather Boushey, a researcher on the study. “We wanted to show what wages people really need to be earning in order to provide these needs.”

The federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. Parents each working full-time jobs at the rate would gross about $21,400 a year together. In the fall, Congress will consider a $1.50 increase to the minimum wage in a two-year period.

U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Columbus, admits the wage is low, but said he’s hard-pressed to find a central Ohio employer who pays so little. He cites small companies and restaurant owners who start workers at $7 an hour and will pay dishwashers $11 an hour.

“I think some groups use the whole minimum-wage issue politically and then don’t look at it objectively,” he said. “How many breadwinners are making minimum wage? It’s a government-mandate wage to drive up everyone else’s wage.”

Tiberi said low-income families should see financial relief from President Bush’s tax plan, including the increase in the child-tax credit.

But for families such as the Jarrells, who still struggle with assistance, Tiberi points to local faith-based organizations to fill in the gaps.

“Community-based solutions not only use public funds, but private funds to help people become self- sufficient,” he said. “The one-size- fits-all programs coming down from Washington don’t always work.”

Increasing Medicaid funding and the earned-income-tax credit for families are two ways U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, has tried to provide more assistance to working-poor families, said Wes Irvin, spokesman for the senator.

Medicaid has been a safety net the Jarrells can’t live without. When 2-year-old Caleb came down with a double ear infection, the medication cost $104.

“If it wasn’t for them (the Jobs and Family Services Department), we’d be so in debt for medical expenses,” Mr. Jarrell said.

It’s a common reason why families find themselves needing welfare, Boushey said.

“We found that the lack of access to health insurance was one of the strongest predictors to families more likely than other families to go without food or move in with another family member or not go to the doctors,” she said.

Mrs. Jarrell never thought she’d be needing so much help.

Going out to dinner is a rare occurrence and usually involves $1 hamburgers at McDonald’s. Bolonga and macaroni and cheese are staples, even though they’d prefer a refrigerator full of fresh fruits and vegetables.

A disconnect notice on the electricity looms, and they pray their student-loan checks come in the mail this week so college won’t become a pipe dream.

The Jarrells live in a two-bedroom apartment in Canal Winchester that is modestly decorated with few pictures on the walls.

In the couple’s bedroom are two snapshots of a two-story house they hope to one day afford. They’re moving to a smaller apartment this week that will lower their rent from $580 to $436 a month.

In the kitchen, the family budget is taped to a cupboard door; rent, van payment and college costs for the next three months are written out. They have every intention of being off assistance within a year.

Despite being in need, the Jarrells give back to those less fortunate by volunteering twice a week at the Faith Mission kitchen in Columbus.

“I think that’s how we take everything we’re going through so well is because we know we’ve got it better than other people,” Mr. Jarrell said.

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