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Making a Difference: Social work students find low wages difficult for Nevadans to overcome

By Pat McDonnell

Low-wage families in Nevada have an ally in trying to handle the crippling effects of poverty.

Eight master's degree candidates in Professor Susan Chandler's Social Welfare Policy class this past fall studied the difficulties faced by low-wage workers and their children when confronted by living expenses and social conditions placing them at risk. They hoped to assess the ways in which state economic processes impact people's well-being and access to basic services.

In their research project, which evolved from Barbara Ehrenreich's 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America, the students created a hypothetical family consisting of a 28-year-old single mother and children who were 7 and 4 years old. The class examined the typical monthly costs of the family's food, rent/utilities, health and child care, along with transportation and miscellaneous household needs to determine whether they could manage expenses. The mother made $10.25 hourly (almost two times the federal minimum wage) and received $500 each month in child support.

"We couldn't make it work," says first-year master's of social work student Lisa Foley, who formerly directed a center for developmentally disabled adults. "Her monthly deficit was $246.70."

Chandler, in a three-year research project culminating in the publication of a series of studies, Working Hard, Living Poor: A Living Wage Report for Nevada, found that the head of a household similar to the one created by her students would need to earn $14.57 hourly to meet basic expenses. That is two and three-quarter times the minimum wage ($5.15 hourly) and more than double the U.S. Census Bureau's Poverty Threshold ($6.67 hourly).

The Nevada chapter of the National Association of Social Workers presented Chandler with its top award Oct. 12 for her commitment to economic and social justice in the state.

"I was blown away by the number of people who work two full-time jobs," Chandler says of her research conducted with the school's field studies director, Alicia Smalley. "We have incredibly hard-working people in this state, but it comes at an incredible cost."

Student Leigh Leavitt had originally thought the $10.25 wage and child support money would be more than enough for the mother in the class project.

"I said, 'She's going to succeed,'" he relates. "I thought we had cheated on her side. I thought she would make her way, but she did not."


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