The response to the McDonalds budget

So McDonalds put out a sample budget for low-income people to live on. The budget has been relentlessly mocked since then. In response to that mocking, Timothy B. Lee authored a post today over at Wonkblog titled “That McDonald’s budget people are making fun of isn’t cruel. It’s realistic.” Lee then goes through the budget numbers and explains how they might realistically match what an actual low-income person would spend.

I sympathize generally with Lee’s reaction to much of the coverage. Everyone who writes about stuff for a living seems to live in DC and NYC, and so their myopia tends to set the stage for all media discourse. This is one of the reasons why people hate the coastal elites, and it’s also why national news shows seem to think it makes sense to cover local NYC political stuff that nobody else cares about.

What media people pay to live in NYC and DC is not remotely reflective of what most people pay. When I lived in Oklahoma, I lived on $600 a month. This is including rent, food, transportation, cable, internet, all other utilities, and basically everything else except health care.

With that said, McDonalds’ budget here is still way off the mark. Even when you take off your NYC glasses and realize many of the prices are fairly reasonable, the budget assumes an income that’s way too high for many low wage workers, and assumes that you have two jobs, which is ridiculous. It also excludes child care. Those two exclusions, by themselves, render the thing goofy, even if the prices are sensible.

However, it’s important that people actually think about what it costs to live. When people estimate high amounts to bolster the case for poor people to receive more income, that’s fine. But these high estimations can also be used more insidiously by households making pretty good money by national standards to pretend they aren’t doing well. The average household income in 2011 was $69,677. As a basic mathematical reality, we can’t all get above that line (not right now at least). If we distributed income totally equally by household, each would have that amount of money.

So when I hear people (obviously those who have had quite comfortable lives) say to me that you really need at least $90k a year to raise a family or something, it’s sort of nice to hear if they are talking about poor people deserving more, but also sort of grating to hear because they are also unwisely making the case that well-off people aren’t well off. To really take a bite out of inequality and poverty especially, taxing people in that $90k area is pretty key. But if we go around pretending they are just keeping their heads above water (usually due to NYC-fueled fantasies about what it costs to live), we wont be able to.