Respect Essential Workers? Let Them Live in Your Town

By Jason Sorens | June 1, 2020

delivery driver

These days we are all appreciating essential workers a little more. Grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, warehouse employees, home health aides, and of course nurses and physicians have all become critical to our way of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, they put their lives on the line every day by interacting with the general public and running the risk of exposing themselves to the virus. Yet too many New Hampshire communities make a decent life impossible for these essential workers.

The following table displays the average yearly wage in New Hampshire for several essential occupations, according to the Occupational Employment Statistics database of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then it shows how much each kind of worker would have to pay in rent as a percentage of gross wages in order to live in Portsmouth, using the median rent data from the U.S. Census ($1233 per month).

Wage and rental costs for essential workers in Portsmouth
Occupation Mean annual wage in NH Portsmouth median annual rent as % of income
Home health & personal care aides $27,500 53.8%
Cashiers $23,550 62.8%
Packers & packagers $25,190 58.7%
Stockers & order fillers $28,820 51.3%
Light truck drivers $34,820 42.5%
Registered nurses $73,880 20.0%

Home health aides, cashiers, packers and packagers, and stockers and order fillers would all have to pay over half of their income on rent in order to afford an apartment in Portsmouth. Light truck drivers, a category that includes most package delivery drivers, would have to spend nearly half of their income on rent. (Gross rent here includes the monthly cost of utilities; however, the data come from the 5-year estimates of the American Community Survey, and so the numbers are likely understated a bit due to the recent rise in rents around the state.)

Now, a good solution if you work in one of these fields is to take on a roommate, or perhaps to live with a spouse or partner who also works. Suppose we look at half the cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment in Portsmouth. The median rent of a two-bedroom apartment in Portsmouth is $1371. Half that cost is $686. That amounts to 30% of income for a home health aide, and to more than 30% of income for cashiers and packers and packagers. The federal government considers anyone spending more than 30% of gross income on housing including utilities, property taxes, and mortgage interest to be "cost burdened." Imagine how difficult it would be to make ends meet if you also had children to take care of, with need for more bedrooms.

Registered nurses seem to be doing just fine in Portsmouth. Or are they? Suppose you want a middle-class lifestyle, including owning your own home. Preliminary 2019 data from New Hampshire Housing say that the median purchase price of a house in Portsmouth was $465,000 ($480,000 for single-family detached). I did a quick calculation on Nerdwallet to see how much a household would have to pay on a $480,000 house, assuming a $40,000 down payment and using Portsmouth's actual $14.86 per thousand property tax rate and including both private mortgage insurance and homeowner's insurance. The answer? $37,709 per year. The average registered nurse could not come close to affording a typical single-family home in Portsmouth.

We have discovered that many essential workers would have to live in near-poverty in order to survive in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and even registered nurses could not afford a middle-class lifestyle there.

What's the solution? Build more homes. Not just because you want to have essential workers in your community for your own self-interest, but because everyone deserves the dignity of hope: the notion that if you strive and save and live responsibly, you can eventually afford to live a decent life in our state.