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Family of 4 needs $76,000 just to 'scrape by' in Seattle, new UW report says

Seattle Times - 10/12/2017

Oct. 12--Just to scrape by in Seattle, a family of four would need to earn $76,000 in a year -- an 86 percent jump since 2001 -- according to a new report from the University of Washington.

And by scrape by, I really mean scrape by.

There isn't a vacation, a splurge item at Nordstrom, or even a little treat written into that budget, says the report's author, Diana Peace, who is a senior lecturer in the UW School of Social Work and director of the Center for Women's Welfare.

"It's a basic-needs budget, at a minimally adequate level," she said. "So the food budget, for example, is only groceries. There's not a slice of pizza, a latte or an ice- cream cone in there."

And that's using public transportation, not owning a car or using ride services.

For a single person in Seattle, the minimum income needed to stay afloat is $12.90 per hour, or about $27,000 per year. On those earnings, a little more than half of the monthly budget goes toward rent, estimated at $1,236.

It's even more expensive on the Eastside.

Pearce has been calculating these basic-needs thresholds -- it's called the Self-Sufficiency Standard -- since 2001. At that time, the state workforce programs, which help unemployed people become self-sufficient, had set a uniform wage goal for the whole state.

"I said, 'Wait a minute -- different family types in different places have different costs of living,' " Pearce said. "Being self-sufficient in one place isn't going to be self-sufficient in another."

So Pearce set about creating a localized and much more granular measure of self-sufficiency -- one that measures how much income families of various sizes and compositions need to make ends meet without public or private assistance across the state. She produces a new report about every three years.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Seattle has increased at more than twice the rate of the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation often used as a cost-of-living indicator.

"We think of inflation as kind of low now, but if you think about the cost of housing, the cost of child care, everything has gone way up, faster than people's wages," Pearce said. "Except maybe food -- food has gone up the least, and that's what the poverty line is based on."

The Self-Sufficiency Standard also is significantly higher than the federal poverty thresholds, which Pearce says are far below what is necessary to meet people's basic needs. The federal poverty guideline for a family of three is $20,420, regardless of where they live. According to Pearce's standard, nowhere in Washington could any family of three get by on that little.

Snohomish and King counties have seen the biggest increases in the Self-Sufficiency Standard, but it's risen across the state.

"It's increased everywhere, but less in the eastern part of the state," Pearce said. "The difference between western, urban Washington and eastern, rural Washington is getting greater."

Pearce says that every three years, when she creates a new report, the gap between wages and costs gets wider.

That gap is feeding other crises facing the city, she said, using the example of traffic congestion: People who can't afford to live in Seattle now commute from far away, adding to the burden on roads.

The increase in housing costs, in particular, has had profound repercussions, Pearce says, as folks find themselves hit with an unexpected expense, or a gap in wages.

"Housing is one of those things that's a very rigid expense," she said. "The landlord wants the rent. You can't say to the landlord, 'Well, I won't be using this second bedroom this month, so I'm only giving you 80 percent.' "

Gene Balk: gbalk@seattletimes.com or 206-515-5052. On Twitter @genebalk

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