Teachers on strike: The impossible math of raising kids on an educator's salary

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Teachers across the state of Washington went on strike Wednesday to demand higher wages.


The average teacher in Washington earned about $53,500 during the 2012-13 school year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Starting teachers in the state earned just $36,000.

Nevermind that they're tasked with educating the next generation, is $36,000 even enough to get by?


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has a helpful living wage calculator and it presents a pretty grim picture. For a single person with no dependents, $36,000 is sufficient. But throw a child into the mix and, according to MIT, a starting teacher is about $4,000 shy of earning a living wage.

Here's how teachers are faring in a few other states.


The average teacher in California made about $69,000 in 2012-13, which is high as far as teaching salaries go. But the cost of living in California is also higher than in many other states. The starting teacher salary was $41,000.

As in Washington, $41,000 is enough for a single person, but not when you introduce a dependent. That would cost more than $47,000. And while a veteran teacher earning $69,000 could support a child, that teacher would be hard-pressed to support more than two children on her salary.

New York

New York has the highest average teacher salary, at about $75,000 in 2012-13. Starting salary was about $44,000. Again, that's enough to support one person, but not dependents. According to MIT, it takes about $49,000 to support one adult and one kid.



The southern state has the lowest average salary, with teachers earning about $42,000 in 2012-13. Starting teachers that year earned just $31,000. Cost of living is relatively low, about $17,500 a year for one person, but it jumps to $35,00 when you add a child to the mix.


The Upshot

Yes, teachers can get by if they begin their teaching careers as young singles without dependents and work toward higher salaries as they marry, presumably gaining a second income, and have children.


But to put that another way: No, teaching is not a viable career path for men and women with "non-traditional" circumstances. In most places, a young single mother pursuing a college education would be ill-advised to become a teacher because, for at least the first few years, she would not be able to support a child.

So it's really no wonder that diversity among teachers is seriously low. It takes certain, narrow circumstances to make a teaching career viable.


As José Luis Vilson, a New York math teacher, told Fusion, “People of color who are coming into these professions don’t always have that monetary foundation to be able to say, ‘I want to take on teaching.'"

That's problematic because while around 80 percent of public school teachers are white, and overwhelmingly female, around half of students are non-white, a number that is expected to climb in the coming years, and studies indicate kids often learn best when they have teachers whose life stories they view as similar.


“There are additional benefits to teachers who are diverse and understand diverse backgrounds,” Farah Ahmad, one of the lead authors of a Center for American Progress report on the topic, told Fusion, “who can be cultural brokers for students who don’t necessarily have role models in their lives.”

But right now, there's very little monetary incentive for anyone, minority or otherwise, to pursue teaching.


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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