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Seattle’s Cost of Living Is More Complicated than You Think

A University of Washington researcher created an alternative to the official poverty line nearly three decades ago. What does its adoption—or lack thereof—reveal about what we need?

By Angela Cabotaje January 13, 2023

Lisa Manzer, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Women’s Welfare, says the current poverty threshold is "just too low."

How much money does a family of four need to live in Seattle without financial assistance? The cheeky answer: about $2,000 more than they have at the moment. The real answer: crucially dependent, especially for those who make the least, on who you ask.

Statistical sticklers might point to the Department of Health and Human Services' federal poverty guideline. In 2023, HHS assigned $30,000 for a four-person household in the contiguous United States. That number is laugh-until-you-cry low, yet it’s the eligibility benchmark that a host of government programs hinge upon. Food stamps and free school lunches. Community health centers and children’s health insurance. Head Start and Job Corps. Each calculating whether someone qualifies for help based on a percentage multiple of that scrape-the-bottom minimum.

Naturally, there are detractors. “It’s just too low,” says Lisa Manzer, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Women’s Welfare. “It doesn’t provide a definition of what families would need.” Her version of an answer, however, does—right down to the penny.

According to something called the Self-Sufficiency Standard, the magic number for a family of four in 2020 is $86,192.61. More specifically, that’s two adults, a preschooler, and a school-age child living in Seattle proper. For two adults and two infants it’s $104,543.12. If those kids were teenagers, $55,340.01. The wildly different sums reflect the wildly different needs modern families have, Manzer says. It just took three decades to figure out.

In the early 1990s, advocates at national nonprofit Wider Opportunities for Women noticed an alarming trend. Trainees, many who were single mothers, were graduating from federally funded job-training programs and securing minimum-wage work, but they still couldn’t afford childcare or food. They’d clawed past the official poverty line on technicalities alone. “They were experiencing significant economic hardships, even though they’d gone through these job-training programs and were employed,” Manzer says.

Enter Dr. Diana Pearce, then a project director at WOW, who went on to establish the Center for Women’s Welfare at UW. Her task: find a new way to calculate basic needs—a more accurate goal. You can see where this is headed.

Pearce’s Self-Sufficiency Standard launched in 1996, 33 years after the first official poverty threshold was published. It accounts for a variety of basics: housing, childcare, food, transportation, health care, essential expenses like clothing, and taxes. The standard varies by state, specific counties even, and fluctuates according to the number of people and age makeup of a household. To date, it’s been calculated for 41 states and 719 different family compositions. Pearce coined it as the “feminization of poverty.” 

Compare that to the federal poverty guidelines which, in the most simplified terms, uses a 1955 survey finding to calculate a household’s overall spending needs. Back then, families devoted about a third of their after-tax income to food. The U.S. poverty line assumes the same, tallying food costs and tripling it to get the total. The math simply doesn’t add up in today’s world, Manzer says, especially not for single mothers. “The poverty measure inherently assumes a stay-at-home mom providing the childcare.”  

Mollie Orshansky, the food economist and Social Security Administration researcher who created the government’s poverty measure, knew its limitations, even back in 1963, when it was first published. It’s impossible to know how much is enough, Orshansky asserted, but “it should be possible to assert with confidence how much, on average, is too little.” Hers was more a measure of inadequacy than a benchmark of success, starkly different from Pearce’s original intent with the standard.

Even so, Manzer considers the Self-Sufficiency Standard a “minimally adequate” basic-needs budget. It doesn’t include things like pet food or takeout, but it’s designed to evolve as needs do. The team updates the standard for each state around every three years, usually when childcare market rate surveys are released. Broadband internet was only just recently added. “For policy reasons, you want it to have a minimum level,” Manzer says. “We have to defend what these numbers are.”

That’s often the case when Manzer breaks down the Self-Sufficiency Standard for policymakers or program directors. “I present the data of each individual cost: housing, childcare, food. I get comments like, ‘Well, that’s too low. That’s too low.’ And then I present the final number...and I get, ‘Well that’s way too high.’ There’s a disconnect.”

Ultimately, Manzer hopes the standard—or a similar measure—is adopted on a national scale, tying federal assistance eligibility to a more realistic yardstick. But the advocacy is squarely on their partners, Manzer says. “We just produce the data.”

After all the math, the standard is already getting more families more services. In Washington, the Workforce Development Council of Seattle–King County uses it to benchmark new customers, set job-training targets, and to highlight workforce income disparities across the region. Oregon’s Multnomah County factored in the standard to prioritize slots in a universal preschool program; Colorado and SeaTac to argue for minimum wage increases. 

The resistance, Manzer says, is slowly dissipating. “Ten, 15 years ago, there was more pushback…. And now, it’s just getting to be where [they say], ‘It’s just way too low.’”

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