May 11, 2007 5:26PM

Comfortably Affordable

On Wednesday, Ed Muir over at the AFT’s NCLBlog took issue with some calculations I made about the ability of a notional first-year teacher in Indianapolis to pay back his student loans and still take care of his other needs. Muir made some decent points, so I thought I’d respond to them, as well as some raised by an astute Cato@Liberty reader.

For starters, Mr. Muir said that placing my recent graduate in Indianapolis “colors” my “interpretation a little bit.” His reason:

[Indianapolis] has a somewhat below average ratio of beginning teacher salary to rent.  And, yes you can get an apartment for $600, but the median rent in 2005 was a bit higher.

As I wrote in my original post, Indianapolis probably isn’t representative of every place in America, so there’s nothing wrong with pointing out in what ways this might be the case. In addition, I acknowledged that Indianapolis has somewhat low rent levels compared to other cities. I didn’t, though, calculate rent at $600 a month, but $650, which is exactly “a bit higher” than the $600 Muir suggests I used.

Muir’s better point was that I didn’t include taxes in my notional teacher’s expenses, something I acknowledged in my original post. I noted too, though, that I’d left out some important likely sources of income for my teacher, like money from a temporary job he might get during the summer. (I also didn’t mention how much my teacher would make if I calculated his salary on an hourly basis because I know what kind of tizzy that can send teachers and AFT reps into!)

Anyway, taking Mr. Muir’s taxation point as a good one, let’s see what will happen to young Mr. Chips’ wallet after taxes.

Recall that our boy was making $34,638 as a first-year teacher. We’ll assume that he pays full federal and state taxes on that, though he probably wouldn’t. (For instance, he would likely be eligible for
Indiana’s renter’s tax deduction and the federal tax deduction for student loan interest payments.) What would the damage be?

Indiana has an individual tax rate on adjusted gross income of 3.4 percent. Assuming our teacher pays that tax on his entire salary, he would owe $1,178 to the State of Indiana. And what if he paid federal taxes based on his entire salary? Those would come out to $5,217. Add the state and federal taxes together and his total tax burden would be $6,395, or $533 per month.

With that monthly burden, what will Chips, Jr.’s new monthly expenses be? We add $1,480 — his other expenses — to his monthly tax burden, and get a total monthly outlay of $2,013.

Ouch! Darn taxes. They’ll get you every time. Someone really ought to downsize government! But I digress….

So what does our teacher have left after the tax man has cometh? To find out, we subtract Mr. Chips’ total monthly expenses from his monthly earnings — $2,887 — and find that the young man will still have $874 left each month.

Unfortunately, the omitted expenses on my original post didn’t end with taxes. An astute reader informed me yesterday that I’d also failed to include utilities and some modern necessities in the young man’s expense. I’d better put those in.

We’ll assume that the teacher pays for both a landline and cell phone (though increasingly people just have the latter). Let’s also assume that he has an Internet hookup, cable television, and pays for electricity but not water. What’s the damage?

Landline: $25 (I found Vonage offering unlimited local and long distance for this price.)

Cell: $40 (This is for Verizon Wireless’s America’s Choice Basic 450 plan. It’s pretty bare-bones but, hey, our guy does also have a landline.)

Internet: $20 (AT&T Express DSL.)

Cable: $48 (This is standard full cable. He could have gotten basic cable for just $13, but he needs his Turner Classic Movies.)

Electricity: $50 (This is a bit of a guess, but I found a listing for a house in Indiana that said the average electric bill was about $100, so I estimated that an apartment might be about half of that.)

Finally, the reader thought it impossible for someone to actually eat meat and vegetables on only $200 a month. But it is possible. Using local D.C. prices, I found that a person could eat three normal meals a day on that amount, and those meals would include daily intake of such things as raisin bran, broccoli, cookies, milk, orange juice, cheese, ice cream, and even steak (though not exactly filet mignon). Moreover, after eating all those things, one would still have money left over for snacks. In order to appease concerned readers, though — and give our boy a few restaurant meals — we’ll add $100 to his monthly food budget.

Now what’s he got left? All the new expenses plus the boost in his food budget combine for $283. Adding that to his old expense total of $2,013 yields a final total of $2,296. And what does that leave our boy once we subtract the expenses from his monthly salary? $591, or slightly more than 20 percent of his monthly salary, about double the proportion of his salary that it is recommended he save! And don’t forget, with the budget we gave him, young Chips isn’t scrimping on much: He’s paying average — not low — rent for an apartment he has all to himself, paying for gas and auto insurance when he could be taking public transportation, maintaining both a landline and a cell phone, spending more on food than he has to, and enjoying a pretty wide selection of television channels — all right out of college.

So what have I gotten from all my budgeting pains? Very strong evidence that one can have average — actually, I calculated above average — student loan burdens and still live very well on a first-year teacher’s salary, contrary to popular mythology. Heck, you could actually more than double my guy’s monthly debt payment and he’d still be living comfortably.

This is not, by the way, to say whether or not my teacher should get a higher salary, or whether debt burdens should be higher or lower. Those things should be decided by a free market. However, in the absence of such a market, it is important to point out the inaccuracies in many of the myths propagated to put more taxpayer money into teacher salaries and student aid, and expand the scope of government.

Unfortunately, I can point out the difference between scary rhetoric and happy reality until I’m blue in the face but still never get people from the AFT, or student advocates at the state PIRGs, to stop crying poverty for teachers and college students. Why? Because once I do that, they change the issue, saying what’s important is not really whether or not a new teacher actually makes more than enough money to live a decent life, but whether or not they’ll be “comfortable.” Writes Muir:

Can one afford it? Strictly speaking, teachers take these jobs and they pay their debts. So yes. But . . . that doesn't make it comfortable for them or good policy for us. Our goal should be to make people want to come into teaching, not to make new teachers feel bitter and even more stressed. 

You just can’t beat this with concrete evidence, because now it’s all about feelings, and you can never demonstrate conclusively how one person — much less millions of people — will feel about anything. I mean, who knows what amount of money will make different people feel comfortable, bitter or stressed? We can show pretty conclusively why they should feel comfortable, but we can’t prove it. But then, that’s why Muir and others resort to these arguments: in the face of reality, they have nothing left to stand on but things that cannot be proven.

And so, in that spirit, let me end this very long post by asserting something that can never actually be proven, but unlike student debt and teacher salary myths is almost certainly true: No matter what teachers are getting paid, we will never hear someone from the AFT say “Woah, that’s enough money and benefits! We teachers are feeling really comfortable, unstressed, and appreciated. Please, don’t pay us any more!”

Knowing that should be reason enough to stick with the facts.