What Actually Is a Working Family?

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Paul Ryan has been pushing the same tax policies for a very long time now, and even with some small adjustments made over the years the net effect is always projected to be the same: Taxes are cut across the board, but most of the benefits accrue to the very wealthiest households. Federal revenues drop significantly as a consequence, which then creates a justification for massive cuts to the kinds of government programs that tend to benefit the poor. You might call this upward redistribution or even class war, but the House Speaker prefers to call it a good deal for “hardworking families.”


Similarly, a set of healthcare bills that likely would have meant the loss of insurance for more than 20 million people, plus a $250,000 tax cut for the very wealthiest 1 percent, were branded by Republican leadership as a kind of rescue mission for these same working families. And when the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, it claimed it did so in part to free working families from “slower and lower incomes.” (All environmental deregulation is actually good for this purpose, according to the White House.)

Part of this is just a familiar grift—in 1984, Ronald Reagan claimed that the massive upwards wealth transfer he set into motion with his 1981 tax cuts were actually a gift to “working families” that now had more “purchasing power”—but the Republican tendency to play fast and loose with the language of work and hardship is also a consequence of a failure to define our terms.

In this kind of political soft focus, David Koch, the president and COO of Koch Industries with an estimated net worth of $4.3 billion, who has a wife and three children, is part of a working family. So is Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who has four children and an estimated net worth of $84.2 billion.

But take the term out of political abstraction and attach a few numbers to it, and you get a much clearer picture of the material conditions facing millions of parents and kids across the country and the kinds of policies that they’d most benefit from. If everything is for the working family, then nothing is.

So what is a working family?

In 2015, the median household income in this country was $55,775, but that alone may be too blunt of metric to go by. In 2015, the median income among black households was $36,898 compared to $77,166 for white households.


These numbers also vary wildly from state to state. In 2015, the median household income in Mississippi was $36,919. It was $54,148 in Oregon and $64,500 in California that same year. And while the cost of living, even as it fluctuates further at the city- and regional-level, may correlate with these jumps to a certain extent, areas with lower wages are not necessarily areas with good affordable housing stock. In Milwaukee, where the median household income is $32,911, a two-bedroom apartment typically rents for just over $1,100—or nearly half of a family’s take home pay after taxes at that income level.

Even so, going on median income alone also obscures the kinds of assets that can either provide a safety valve or leave families living precariously one financial setback away from hunger, homelessness, or defaulting on crucial utilities. According to a 2015 report from the Federal Reserve on the economic wellbeing of American households, 46 percent of adults said they “either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400, or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money.”


The report also found that more than 30 percent of non-retired respondents also had no retirement savings whatsoever, a figure that included 27 percent of people over the age of 60. Of those making less than $40,000 a year, 30 percent reported that meeting their short-term needs—rent, food, gas, utilities—as a major financial concern.

It is hard to imagine a scenario in which losing Medicaid in favor of a health savings account would benefit a family in this situation. Or how losing food assistance in exchange for a minimal tax, once-yearly tax return could turn into a net positive. But of course Paul Ryan knows that already.

Senior editor, Jezebel