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The Income-Chill Factor

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Much has been made of President Obama's call in his State of the Union address for an increase in the national minimum wage. Fully expecting Republican resistance to this legislative goal, Obama took it upon himself to raise wage for contractors who do business with the federal government.

The wage he settled on is $10.10 per hour. If my math is right, that works out to just over $21,000 a year. Not a windfall, but not awful either.

But, of course, it all depends. The same week the president delivered his speech, the nation continued to suffer the effects of the "Polar Vortex," braving temperatures in the single digits or, sometimes, even lower. But meteorologists, being the smart lot that they are, know that one-dimensional numbers don't always tell the full story.

In the middle of the last century, formulae were developed to measure the effect that wind speed has upon the body's perceived temperature. Not how cold it is outside. But how cold it feels outside. It's called the "wind-chill factor."

The president's speech got me to wondering. Not every ten-dollar wage is created equal. It may feel like a living wage. But, depending on circumstances, it may feel like a poverty wage. For the working class in this country, factors outside their control can make life feel colder, nastier, and poorer.

What if there was a way to account for facts of life that make poor people feel even poorer? Like the wind-chill factor, but for money. Let's call it the "income-chill factor."

Consider this an unscientific and imprecise list of adjustments workers might make to their incomes:

1) You have no car, and live in a neighborhood with no supermarket. If you don't have an extra two hours (each way) to take the bus, you may end up buying groceries at the quickie mart, or bodega (or whatever you call the corner store in your neighborhood). Expect to pay as much as double the price for food of lower quality. Subtract $750 per year.

2) Your neighborhood has no bank. Expect to pay a 2 to 3 percent "check-cashing" fee to the corner "moneymart" to get your own money. Money orders for all your bills will cost money as well. Subtract $300 per year.

3) You have an old car. No $179 a month lease payment, but expect poor gas mileage, unexpected repairs, and surprise inspection failures. Subtract $1,500 per year.

4) You live in a gentrified neighborhood. The newcomers have brought exotic piercings, edgy music, and fancy coffee, but your landlord is suddenly asking for another $300 a month for the same apartment with the same broken kitchen fixtures. Subtract $3,600 a year.

5) You work multiple jobs. Seems like a good idea? Of course. But don't expect to be able to have extra time to make it to the post office or traffic court. (Tickets happen to everyone. Only some of us have time to fight them.) Look forward to late fees and fines. Subtract $600 per year.

6) You get sick, and live in a red state.
Poor diet, exhaustion, and stress are all risk factors for illness. While the ACA offers subsidies for the middle class, and expanded Medicaid for the poor, many Republican lawmakers have found it politically expedient to refuse the new Medicaid money. Millions of working Americans currently fall in that yawning gap. If you get sick, subtract $500 to all of your income (depending on the severity).

The Biblical prophet Amos excoriates the one-percenters of Israel circa 750 BCE, charging that they "grind the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and make the humble walk an obstacle course." When the founders of this country fancied it a New Jerusalem, I don't think that's what they had in mind.

But the truth is that there are forces in the US economy, maybe unseen but surely fely, that conspire to confound the best efforts of the working poor. Feeling the bitter bite of the income-chill factor, too many Americans are one crisis away from homelessness. Living on the street, freezing temperatures are not metaphorical.

Frigid thermometer readings continue to make headlines. Frozen economic opportunities? They are less likely to capture our imagination. Public policy, sadly, is not addressing the sad realities facing our poorest citizens. Imminent food stamp cuts are set to take effect. Legislation mandating even Obama's modest proposed increase in federal minimum wage seems a long shot at best.

Has the chill extended to our hearts as well? Surely, we can do better. Everybody complains about the weather. But when will we address the bone-chilling freeze hanging over the poorest Americans, still, even tonight?