UW News

October 15, 2020

For single adults and families alike, higher cost of living in all Washington counties

UW News

A single adult in Seattle needs to earn more than the state minimum wage to make ends meet — and if they have an infant, they’ll need to make more than twice that: $34 an hour, according to new research from the University of Washington.

On the east side of King County — the state’s most expensive area, in terms of cost of living — that single adult would need to make almost $44,000 a year to get by, while the single parent with a baby would need to make nearly $83,000 to cover basic housing, transportation, food and child care needs.

The data are part of the 2020 update of the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Washington State, a report that identifies, county-by-county, the amount of income needed to support families of various sizes without additional help from the government, community or other personal resources. Produced by the Center for Women’s Welfare at the UW School of Social Work for the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County, the study, released Oct. 15, shows an increase in the cost of living for almost every family size, in every county, since the last report in 2017.

And while counties on the west side of the Cascades generally require higher wages to pay for basic needs, the cost of living in Eastern Washington counties grew significantly, too. The self-sufficiency wage for a single person in Walla Walla County, for example, grew 27% over the past three years.

COVID-19 upended the U.S. economy this year, and researchers collected much of the data for the 2020 Self-Sufficiency Standard before long-term economic effects could be measured. So the substantial burden carried by families, as illustrated in the report, should be considered a baseline against which to measure the impact of the economic disruption and any policies designed to address it, researchers said.

“The Self-Sufficiency Standard documents that Washington’s families face a growing crunch as costs are rising faster than wages,” said report author Diana Pearce, who created the Self-Sufficiency Standard in 2001. “Additionally, we found that during the Great Recession, the cost of basic needs remained the same or increased, while families concurrently experienced lost incomes. Right now, despite lost wages due to the pandemic, families are still having to make hard choices trying to pay rent, buy food, and arrange child care.””

Since 2001, the Self-Sufficiency Standard has been compiled for 41 states and the District of Columbia. Researchers with the Center for Women’s Welfare update individual states as funding allows. This year the center  has produced data for 31 states, with reports completed or in the works for Connecticut, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York and Wyoming.

Researchers use a number of methodologies and sources to develop the Self-Sufficiency Standard. “Self-sufficiency” is defined as a bare-bones lifestyle: no spending on travel or entertainment. Food costs assume all meals are prepared at home, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Low-Cost Food Plan. Transportation costs are based on transit fares if at least 7% of a county’s workforce commutes by bus; otherwise, a series of costs are calculated for operating, maintaining and insuring a car.

In Washington, the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County provides an accompanying interactive tool, The Calculator, for families and career counselors. The tool integrates Self-Sufficiency Standard data with basic budgeting, career and vocational planning, along with embedded information about work supports, such as food stamps or subsidized health care, to allow users to determine their own self-sufficiency.

According to the state Office of Financial Management, median household income in Washington grew about 63% between 2000 and 2019. Meanwhile, the Self-Sufficiency Standard estimates that statewide costs have increased by 72% on average, while median earnings, according to the Census Bureau, have increased by just 60% since 2001.

Among the trends highlighted by the 2020 Self-Sufficiency Standard:

  • Cost of living varies wildly by geography. A single adult needs to make $17.61 to get by in King County, while in Lincoln County, the hourly self-sufficiency wage is $8.69.
  • Family size boosts expenses substantially, no matter the location, especially if children are young enough to require care while a parent works. A single parent in Seattle with an infant and a preschooler needs to make $47.12 an hour to make ends meet, while that same family in Lincoln County needs $23.06.
  • For households with children, housing and child care typically claim the largest share of the budget — in Yakima County, for example, a two-parent, two-child family spends half of its income on those expenses.
  • The Self-Sufficiency Standard in Seattle, specifically, is higher than many other cities around the country, such as Chicago, Denver, Portland and Phoenix.
  • In Seattle, among the 10 most common occupations, only three — operations managers, registered nurses and software developers — have wages above the Self-Sufficiency Standard for a single parent with two young children.


“For decades, the Seattle region has had great economic prosperity and high-wage job growth, but the economic divide has widened as low-wage jobs have expanded and middle-wage jobs have steadily declined,” said Marie Kurose, chief executive officer of the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County. “Many workers can no longer afford the high cost of housing, child care and transportation, and workers of color are hit the hardest. As we rebuild from the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19, we must prioritize jobs and economic supports that meet the higher costs of our region.”

The report accompanying the Self-Sufficiency Standard notes the importance of government support in helping working families, the inadequacy of current federal poverty guidelines in accounting for all needs and expenses, and the need for higher wages, generally. The report is used to evaluate policy, target job training resources, advise clients in worker-training programs, and assist grant-makers with needs analyses and impact assessment.

“The federal poverty guidelines are simply outdated. They were developed half a century ago, based solely on the cost of food.” said Lisa Manzer, the project’s principal investigator. “Basic costs such as housing and health care are rising much faster than food and don’t reflect new costs such as child care. This leads to families, who are above the federal poverty guidelines but below the Self-Sufficiency Standard, stuck with scarce opportunity for governmental support and insufficient income for basic needs.”

One major company, IKEA, uses the Self-Sufficiency Standard to inform its livable wage calculations and helps fund updates to the Standard for every state in which it operates stores.

For more information, contact Annie Kucklick at akuckl@uw.edu or Joe Taylor at the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County, jtaylor@seakingwdc.org.


Information from the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County was included in this release.