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You work. Maybe your spouse does, too. But you just paid the rent, the car is back in the shop, and your daughter's day care bill just arrived.

Suddenly that paycheck seems a whole lot thinner.

Do you earn enough to support your family?

How do you know?

According to a standard that measures economic independence for working families, a family of four in Erie County with two school-age children needs $35,292 a year to cover its basic household needs without outside financial help.

For a family of five, that figure balloons to $45,192.

No matter how much a family earns, if it can't cover basic housing, transportation, food, clothing, medical and child care costs, it doesn't earn enough.

This philosophy is the basis of the "self-sufficiency standard," a benchmark that has been adopted in 35 states, including New York. It is now the basis for a new Erie County calculator program that could revolutionize the way local agencies help the working underclass.

Tailored to families with full-time working adults, this standard aims to give struggling parents a sense of what they must earn to get by without additional public or private aid.

Tim Williams and his wife, Francine Balesteri, juggle one full-time job and two part-time jobs to support their five children.

Jean spent most of her adult life living the middle-class dream -- until her husband died unexpectedly. The 63-year-old suburban widow has two grown daughters and works part time.

Both families felt they didn't earn enough to make ends meet but didn't have a realistic benchmark by which to judge until now.

"That's who you don't hear about, people like us," said Williams, whose family lives with his in-laws in the Town of Tonawanda. "We have three jobs between the two of us, and we still need public assistance."

The local self-sufficiency formula is based on 2000 data. It accounts for where a family lives, how old the children are and assumes the need for paid child care. Federal poverty line standards do none of these things.

The self-sufficiency standard shows, for instance, that Buffalo is considered a more expensive place to live than Rochester or Syracuse for families with children because of its higher child care costs, even though Buffalo's housing costs are slightly lower.

Federal poverty guidelines, on the other hand, are based on an outdated 1960s model that assumes food accounts for a third of a family's overall expenses. In reality, housing and child care typically comprise the biggest chunks of a working family's budget.

The differences are stark.

Federal poverty guidelines state that the Williams family -- a family of seven -- would need to earn less than $28,390 to fall below the poverty line.

But the self-sufficiency standard says the Williams really need to earn $74,448 to achieve bare financial independence, once again assuming both parents work and require paid, full-time child care for their young children.

Comparatively, Jean is a single parent with grown daughters. She would need to make less than $9,310 to fall below the federal poverty line. Under the self-sufficiency standard, she would need to earn at least $13,500.

Erie County is one of only four regions in the country to develop a user-friendly calculator based on this newer standard. Training for the program just recently began.

"As far as I know, this is the best one out there," said Myrna Young, head of the Everywoman Opportunity Center, which spearheaded the local effort.

In most areas, the self-sufficiency standard is available only in chart form. It's used by many federally funded work force programs to help adults map out their employment needs, said Diana Pearce, the social work professor who created the standard and directs the Center for Women's Welfare at the University of Washington.

"It's used much more as a benchmark than an eligibility standard," Pearce said.

Half a million working families in New York State -- one out of every four -- are considered poor even though at least one family member has a job, according to statewide study released this month. Local census data supports similar findings for the Buffalo Niagara region.

Married couples head more than half these struggling families, notes the study, sponsored by the Center for an Urban Future and the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy.

"These are people who are trying, who are working," said Timothy Smeeding, a professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. "These are not people who are on welfare."

Take the Williams family.

The husband and wife brought in $48,000 a year, with Williams routinely working up to 16 hours a day. Yet that amount is considered insufficient, given the family's large size.

Until recently, Williams worked full time as a service technician for Xerox products and another 30 to 40 hours a week as a tow truck driver. His wife, Balesteri, also worked 20 to 30 hours a week as a convenience store clerk.

With all those jobs, the family was still forced to move in with Balesteri's parents and borrow family members' credit cards for occasional clothes purchases. All the children receive Medicaid and are watched by family members when both parents are at work.

Several weeks ago, Williams lost his full-time job. His family remains buried in debt.

Jean is better off. Between her part-time income and her late husband's Social Security benefit, she draws $16,884 a year and hopes to keep her house. For privacy reasons, she asked that her full name not be used.

Unlike those who are unemployed, working people like Jean and Williams often have more difficulty figuring out what kind of assistance they might qualify for.

But with the new Erie County calculator, a counselor can input a family's size, income and household expenses and find out whether the family may be eligible for any one of 13 money-saving programs.

When Jean went through the calculator process at the Everywoman Opportunity Center, she learned she was eligible to participate in the Healthy New York health insurance plan, the Lifeline basic phone plan and the Earned Income Tax Credit, all of which amount to an annual savings of $1,154.

"I had no idea what was available," Jean said.

Young pointed out that the self-sufficiency standard and the calculator model were developed primarily by women's agencies at the local, state and national levels. The Oshei Foundation provided a $200,000 grant to adapt the calculator locally, with the Everywoman Opportunity Center coordinating the project.


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