At first glance, the numbers are surprising, even startling. The income threshold limit for a family of six applying for Lynn Economic Opportunity (LEO) fuel assistance is $87,000 a year. The threshold limit for a family of four is $66,000 a year.
Punch “median household income for Massachusetts” into Google and the answer that comes back is $70,628 a year. That sounds like a pretty good salary until the realities of survival in modern America get tallied up.
Housing costs as defined by rent or mortgages payments get added on top of health care costs, food expenses, transportation and utilities, including heating costs. A six-person family with a single wage earner is presumed under energy assistance guidelines to potentially need help with home heating even if that earner makes almost $90,000 a year. A two-income family with six mouths to feed is presumed to potentially need help heating a home even though both wage earners are make up to $43,000 a year.
The reality in Lynn, the reality in America, is that $87,000 a year is an exception, not the rule, for single head of household incomes and making more than $40,000 a year in a two-income family is doing well.
A household with an $87,000 annual income, or even a $71,000 a year income, presumably has a stay-at-home partner helping with the kids. But that is an assumption that falls short of reality in Lynn and modern America.
If a family of four lives on almost $70,000 a year and still needs heating assistance, the presumption — the assumption — is that family is barely making ends meet. Choices between rent or a mortgage payment that is not tardy are getting compared around the kitchen table to monthly bills including car insurance and property taxes, or heating oil and health insurance, or how much will be spent on food.
Disposable income — money left over to do something fun, to go on a trip or splurge during the holidays — is not a subject up for discussion for a four-person family living on $71,000 or less. If these families are eligible for aid as elemental as fuel assistance, then disposable income is a phrase that is not part of their vocabulary.
Millions of Americans will count blessings this week and take stock of good fortune or setbacks that burdened them during the past year. They will look ahead to a new year and ask tough questions. Some will ask if their job is secure. Others will wonder if their rent is going up. Still others will try to figure out how to pay rising healthcare costs or set aside money to buy a new car.
Lynn is fortunate to have an organization like LEO to provide a conduit and resource for heating assistance. Many other local organizations provide similar help to thousands of people. But the real need in Lynn, in America, is for opportunity. Leaders must emerge who can define the opportunities working people need to prosper, to grow incomes, and to invest in the economy through home, vehicle and disposable income purchases.
Assistance only goes so far. Opportunity is the door that opens to prosperity.