Families feel the squeeze

Higher fuel, health costs hit home

Overall, Paul and Anne Kirk say things aren’t too bad for them and their two sons on their 190-acre farm outside of Lawrence.

But the Kirks, like other middle-class families nationwide, have watched as rising fuel and health care costs have put a tighter squeeze on household finances.

“The main thing that bothers me the most is that I can’t provide for my kids like my parents provided for us,” Paul Kirk said. “There’s always a sense of doubt that you’re always going to have enough at the end of the month, but sometimes you don’t. We just can’t do things the way we’d like to.”

$64,000 question

When he was asked recently why Americans aren’t delighted by their strong economy, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson called it the $64,000 question.

In fact, there’s a $65,093-a-year answer. That’s the median income of a family of four in fiscal 2006, according to the Census Bureau, and middle-class families are being squeezed between stagnant wages and skyrocketing energy and health care bills.

The combined income of Paul, 37, who works at Lawrence Automotive Diagnostics, his wife Anne, 38, who works as a bus driver for the Perry-Lecompton school district and does leather repair, and their farm with 75 head of Black Angus cattle last year was about $55,000.

For Douglas County’s 102,000 residents, the median family income at last report was $57,572, with Lawrence at $55,537, according to the U.S. Census American Fact Finder survey, which does not set a standard for the number in a household.

Kansas’ 2006 average of $64,215 is slightly below the national average.

Barely keeping up

Jeffery Kirk, 11, left, helps his family finish some evening chores by feeding their horses. In the background are, from left, Jeffery's mother, Anne; his brother, Steven, 8; and his father, Paul Kirk. The Kirks think they have a good life but, like other middle-class families nationwide, have watched as factors like rising fuel and health care costs have managed to put them in a tighter financial squeeze. The Kirks live in rural Douglas County where the median family income is 7,572, with Lawrence just short of that at 5,537, according to the U.S. Census American Fact Finder.

The U.S. economy is indeed strong. Although growth is slowing, it’s essentially been steady since mid-2001. September’s unemployment rate was a low 4.6 percent, and the Dow Jones industrial average reached record highs last month.

But through September, the growth in hourly wages was flat or negative for 27 of the previous 29 months, according to Labor Department data. Wages for blue collar and nonmanagerial workers – 80 percent of the work force – are growing at a 3.9 percent annual rate, the Labor Department reported in September. Consumer price inflation, however, is rising at the same rate. That means prices are rising as fast as wages.

Workers are barely keeping up. Health care, wages and energy prices are consumers’ top three economic concerns, according to a Gallup poll in September.

“That has to do with things like stagnant wages, fears of jobs being outsourced, income security. These are on people’s minds, particularly in lower- and middle-income areas,” said Dennis Jacobe, chief economist in Charlotte, N.C., for Gallup.

“I think it’s quite clear to people that their paychecks are being squeezed when they try to meet their family budgets,” said Jared Bernstein, the chief economist for the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “There’s a disconnect between overall economic performance and paychecks of working families.”

Typical expenses

Here’s how the hypothetical median-income family – half of four-member families earn less, half earn more – is being squeezed.

The typical family paid, on average from 1999 to 2004, about $865 a year to heat a home with heating oil or $586 with natural gas, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Assn.

Last winter, however, it cost $1,496 to heat a home with heating oil and $946 with natural gas. Those are increases of 73 percent and 61 percent.

But the Kirk family of Lawrence hasn’t been affected by heating costs because its two-story 1890 farmhouse is heated by a wood-burning stove, using dead elm and walnut trees from the farm.

They pay about $100 a month for electricity.

But their water bill jumped during the drought from August through October as 63 head of Angus cows and calves drank a 900-gallon tank twice a day.

They haven’t received the bill yet, but Anne dreads to see what it will be.

Fuel costs

Then there’s gasoline. The nationwide average for a gallon of unleaded regular gasoline was $2.22 last month, according to AAA. That’s 57 percent higher than $1.41, the average price for a gallon of gas during the second week of October from 2000 through 2003.

Anne Kirk not only has to get to Perry every day to drive a school bus, she then drives five days a week to classes at Washburn University in Topeka where she is working on earning a teaching degree. Her gas bill is about $45 a week.

And the $1,000 they use to buy wholesale fuel to run their tractors and equipment hasn’t gone as far this year.

“We’ve kind of had to resort to hauling 10 gallons at a time from the local Casey’s store to keep the tractors and farm trucks rolling,” Anne said. “It’s hard to shell out $1,000 to $1,500 at a time when you don’t have that for the fuel.”

Health insurance

Health insurance costs have climbed even faster. The premiums workers pay for employer-provided health insurance rose an average of 7.7 percent this year and have increased 84 percent since 2000, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health issues research center.

Average employer-paid family health coverage now is estimated to cost $11,480 annually, and workers pay about $2,973 of that in premiums, Kaiser said. That’s $1,354 more per year than workers paid six years ago.

“Health care costs outpace the cost of just about everything in our economy,” said James Klein, the president of the American Benefits Council in Washington, D.C. “Most of that cost burden is increasingly shared with workers.”

Some 66 percent of the nation’s employers have higher employee co-pays this year; 56 percent raised premiums and 56 percent increased deductibles for participants, according to a recent survey by The Society of Human Resource Management.

The Kirk family, too, has felt the effects of health insurance and medical costs.

“Outside of my mortgage, it’s the second-biggest expense overall,” said Paul Kirk.

Before his wife Anne got health care with the school district, Paul estimated his health care premiums were $132 a week.

When his youngest son was diagnosed with pneumonia last winter, the Kirks had to pay $1,100 out of pocket, which was still only about half of what they paid several years earlier for Anne’s broken arm.

Now, they pay through Paul’s small-business insurance plan about $63 a week to insure their two sons, Jeffery, 11, a sixth-grader at Prairie Middle School, and Steven, 8, a third-grader at Lecompton Elementary School.

The percentage of Americans with employer-provided health insurance dropped by 5 percentage points from 2000 to 2005, to 59.5 percent.

As insurance grows more expensive, the number of Americans without it keeps growing. Some 14.2 percent had no health insurance in 2000; last year, 15.9 percent lacked it.