The Northwest Federation of Community Organizations just published its annual job gap study, looking at the share of jobs that actually pay a living wage (defined as one that puts healthy food, acceptable housing, and other basic living expenses within financial reach).  Not too surprisingly, it found that only about a quarter of the jobs in the Northwest pay a living wage for a single-parent family with two kids. (See press coverage in Washington and Idaho.)

To me, this news seems about right.  For a family with kids, the cost of living seems pretty darn high, once you factor in housing, health care, child care, rising energy bills, etc. And many, many jobs don’t pay particularly well.  So it’s little shock that there are lots of families who have to cut corners to get by.

But as plausible as the figures from the job gap report may seem, they’re also hard to square with this claim from a recent article in The American Prospect:

[A]ccording to a 2004 Roper Poll for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, 93 percent of individuals earning more than $50,000 described themselves as doing well—many as doing very well—as did 77 percent of those who earned just $30,000 to $40,000.

So…few jobs pay a living wage, but most people seem to consider themselves as "doing well."  Hm.  I don’t think this is exactly cause for scepticism about the "living wage" figures—but it’s certainly evidence that there’s more here than meets the eye.  Perhaps jobs below the "living wage" are more common for people without families to support, or where one partner in a family earns substantially more than the other.  Or perhaps people are just reluctant to admit that they’re not "doing well," even in an anonymous survey.

One thing is pretty clear, though—as a society, we haven’t done a particularly good job of measuring how people are really faring economically.  Part of that is lack of attention—economic statisticians are generally more concerned with aggregate figures for GDP, productivity, and the like, rather than with the situation of real families.  But part is just that, well, it’s just really hard to decide how to measure true prosperity. Surveys?  Fancy economics?  Guesswork?  Any one approach is bound to have its drawbacks—which means that you probably have to look at the problem a bunch of different ways, though a number of different lenses, to get closer to a useful answer.