As I mention in my commentary on the Catechism’s treatment of possessions, the central distinction required to implement its principles is a distinction between what possessions are necessary and basic, and what is superfluous. The superfluous stuff is supposed to be directed toward “the universal destination of goods” – that is, God’s will that all share in the bounty of the creation, for it is given to all.

In a wage society, for most people, “enough” will look like a number – as in “enough purchasing power to live a decent life.” But what is that? It is not an easy number to determine. Take this Washington Post story from a few months ago, about a family struggling to live on $90,000 a year – the comment thread tells us how divided people can become on these questions. My friend Bob Sullivan, a wonderfully incisive and committed writer you should check out, engaged me and others in our choir after Mass in this discussion… and has now posted a great blog post estimating what a family of four needs in DC.

Here, I’m posting several other estimates, with details, that I’ve been using in my work on the problem of determining what luxury is:

Comparing current cost-of-living data[1]

  EPI   living wage – family – MD JOBS   NOW living wage – family – MN CEX   2009 – income 40-50K[2] CEX   2009 – family[3] CEX   2009 – income 100-120K[4]
Food $9,048 $8,280 $5,384 $9,827 $9,622
Shelter   & util $15,012 $13,440 $11,990 $19,141 $18,808
Transportation $7,284 $5,460 $6,393 $9,988 $12,378
Medical $4,554[5] $5,448 $2,937 $3,460 $4,385
Miscellaneous   spending $6,156 $3,804 $12,849 $27,913 $30,947
Total   budget/spending $42,054[6] $36,432[7] $39,553 $70,329 $76,140

I’m interested – as Bob is – in others’ view of these estimates. Look at the footnotes for assumptions and the like, if you really want to geek out on this. But especially for readers with families, do these numbers seem plausible? High? Low? Obviously, there are individual issues in every case, but can there be a core of basic needs defined? Or is Amartya Sen correct in suggesting that, rather than a basket of goods everyone needs, basic necessity is defined by “capabilities”, focusing on questions like “Can they take part in the life of the community?” or “Can they appear in public without feeling disgraced?” or “Can they visit friends and relations if they choose?” This approach suggests that social participation is really the standard that should and does guide prudential judgments about the necessity of commodities. This accords well with the first two themes of Catholic social teaching identified by the U.S. bishops: dignity, but understood as a matter of participation.

What makes “participation” possible could present an even bigger challenge to these numbers. The discussion amongst the choir noted how hard it is for families to find any opportunity for the kinds of social involvement the Church urges and many people would like to do… if they were not burning the candle at both ends. Should they just move to Columbus? What is your view?



[1] For all examples, “family” is a four-person household. The JOBS NOW calculator is for the state of Minnesota – calculations are used for the metro Twin Cities area. The EPI (Economic Policy Institute) calculator can be customized to any US location. The numbers here are used for the Baltimore, MD metro. The BLS data is available in multiple tables at

[2] This income bracket includes an average household with 2.5 persons, 1.3 of whom work, and there are 0.6 children. Thus, the numbers would be predictably smaller than estimates for a larger household size.

[3] This is the breakdown for the household category of “husband and wife, oldest child 6 to 17” – the average household size here is 4.1, so while the category includes families with more and fewer than two children, the average is very close to two children.

[4] This income bracket includes an average household of 3.0 persons, 1.9 of whom work, and there are 0.8 children.

[5] The EPI calculator assumes no employer subsidy for medical insurance. For comparison, I have taken 25% of their number, to represent a typical employer-subsidized plan split. The JOBS NOW calculator includes subsidized employer insurance. The CEX data measures only direct medical spending. Thus, the comparison here is difficult.

[6] The total here is less than what the web calculator shows; their estimator includes child care, whereas the JOBS NOW calculator assumes for a four-person family that there are no direct child care expenses.

[7] The JOBS NOW database assumes that this family will have a negative income tax bill, and their income needs are thus lowered. The EPI has a substantial positive tax bill. Since CEX data measures income and spending before taxes, I have taken out taxes in both wage calculators.