RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Of course such luxuries are well beyond the reach of many Americans these days. A new report calculates that many people can't afford any frills.

To talk more about this, we called Shawn McMahon. He's head of research for a group called Wider Opportunities for Women. It works with low income women and families. And he calculated the group's basic economic security tables or best index.

Mr. SHAWN MCMAHON (Wider Opportunities for Women): It's not a middle class income measure. It's certainly not a poverty measure. It measures the amount of income that a family needs to have very basic economic security across a lifetime, and hopefully to promote inter-generational security as well.

MONTAGNE: What expenses do you include in your survey?

Mr. MCMAHON: The list includes: housing, utilities, food, transportation, childcare, healthcare, taxes, and then two very important elements: emergency savings and retirement savings.

MONTAGNE: So therefore it might include clothes but it doesn't include fancy running shoes.

Mr. MCMAHON: Correct. It doesn't include any of the amenities that a lot of people associate with the middle class, such as vacations or meals at restaurants, no cable television, no movie tickets. It's just the bare basics.

MONTAGNE: Is there a single biggest expense that applies to just about everyone?

Mr. MCMAHON: As you can imagine, housing and utilities is generally the biggest expense. However, once a family has two or more children, then childcare is often a bigger expense even than housing and utilities. For households with two workers, transportation can actually be bigger than housing expenses as well.

MONTAGNE: All right, so what is the bottom line, as you've measured it, for a basic income for a family? And I guess the standard is family of four - two children, two parents.

Mr. MCMAHON: Well, for that standard family, two workers and two young children, each of the workers needs to earn just over $16 an hour or a total of about $68,000 a year.

MONTAGNE: And for an individual?

Mr. MCMAHON: A single worker without any children requires about $30,000 a year. That's roughly twice the federal minimum wage full-time.

MONTAGNE: I think a lot of people will think those numbers sound high. And that's partly because many of us have heard of the federal poverty line, which is quite a bit lower than the numbers that you've come up with.

Mr. MCMAHON: Well, the federal poverty level was actually developed about 50 years ago on a very basic assumption about what families needed to buy food. And then a multiple of that was used to calculate a total family budget. So the federal poverty level bears little resemblance to reality.

MONTAGNE: So this no-frills - I'd say almost extreme no-frills - existence for an individual still costs above $30,000.

Mr. MCMAHON: It does. And sometimes people look at the bottom line and they get something of a sticker shock. But when you look at the actual tables, and you go expense by expense, people tend to agree that these numbers are quite reasonable. It's just that when we add everything up at the bottom of the table, and when workers add things up at the end of the month, they're often surprised with just how expensive life is these days, particularly compared to their shrinking wages.

MONTAGNE: Shawn McMahon is head of research for the organization Wider Opportunities for Women, and he helped put together a survey of Americans' economic security.

Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. MCMAHON: Thank you for having me.

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