To Halve and Halve Not

So you live in Montgomery County, Maryland. Congratulations! You live in one of the wealthiest counties in the entire United States, with a median household income of about $95,000 a year. Pretty sweet!

Don’t pop those champagne corks just yet, my friends. There’s the matter of that beige little word “median” in there. No, it doesn’t mean “average”, although that would be awesome in this case. It’s the mid-point, which for our purposes means half of county residents fall below that $95K income and half above it. Still pretty good, right?

Well, maybe. Consider this: according to the 2012 Self-Sufficiency Standard[1], a family of three (one adult, one pre-school child, and one school-age child) would need an income of $77,933 per year to be able to live here without financial assistance. We’re not talking living the high life — just the bare minimum for rent, food, transportation, medical care, and other essentials.

Let’s say our family’s adult works in a service job where he or she earns the minimum wage. In Montgomery County that means $9.55 an hour, not too shabby or at least not as shabby as it is lots of other places. That person would have to work 8,160 hours in a year at such a wage to hit that self-sufficiency income level. Uh oh. That’s about 157 hours a week, leaving a whopping 11 hours for a person to eat, sleep, take care of those two adorable kids, and deal with everything else other than work. In other words, impossible, at least here on the planet with the yellow sun where days are only 24 hours long. Sorry to force math and physics on you but it is the only way.

There’s more. You’ve probably seen references to the “Federal Poverty Level” and wondered just what that’s all about, so here goes. It’s a complicated calculation made by the federal government to establish just what we mean when we say someone is “living in poverty” in this country. It’s too complicated for me to explain, actually, so go look it up yourself at Anyway, for 2016, the Federal Level of Poverty for our little family of three is $20,160.

That $20,160 is only about 26% of that Self-Sufficiency Standard level of income needed to just get by in MoCo. Think about the sheer impossibility of living on $20,160 or less, in a county where more than half of the residents make more than $95,000 a year. Market costs for housing, food, clothing, childcare – everything – tend to be aligned with that top half. Being poor in such an expensive place means making daily trade-offs: pay this bill or that one, but not both. Buy food or medicine, but not both. And the stakes are so much higher when you live in poverty. You get too sick or for too long, or your car dies and you can’t afford to fix it to get to work, and you might lose your job. You lose your job, and you could easily lose your home. Hard to believe, but here in Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest places in America, nearly 70,000 people may be one illness or job loss away from financial catastrophe for their family.

At the Mercy Health Clinic, the majority of our patients are living at or below 100% of the Federal Poverty Level like our imaginary little family (except ours are real). For some of these patients, their income is so low that even a subsidy isn’t enough to help them buy health insurance through the health exchange; others lack the documentation to do so. That’s why Mercy exists, to provide free, top-quality health care, prescription medications, medical oversight, and health education to these most vulnerable of our neighbors.

To learn more about poverty in one of the wealthiest counties in America, click here Then come back and click here to support the Mercy Health Clinic. I promise you’ll feel better even after all this math.

— Pam Saussy, Board Member


[1] Healthy Montgomery;

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