‘It’s definitely tough’: New study shows nearly third of WA households struggle to make ends meet

Nearly a third of Washington households struggle to make ends meet, according to a newly published University of Washington study.  

It found that households in eastern counties like Ferry, Okanogan, Stevens, and Pend Oreille are hurting the most in the state. In King County, Des Moines, Federal Way, and Vashon Island are seeing the most households struggle. 

The study titled, ‘Overlooked & Undercounted: Struggling to Make Ends Meet in Washington State’ didn’t use the Official Poverty Measure, it instead measured households using the Self Sufficiency Standard. The SSS measures how much income a household needs to meet basic needs without government help. It takes into account where the household is and household makeup. The Official Poverty Measure doesn’t take all of that into account, leaving a lot of struggling people out. We talked with one Des Moines woman who said the results make her feel seen and validated.

“Totally I think I definitely am struggling to make ends meet. I have a family of five so I have three kiddos at home and it’s definitely tough,” said Brittney Loiseau, who lives in Des Moines.

We caught Loiseau as she packed up her weekly grocery haul. The mom of three kids under five said she wasn’t at all shocked to learn that 28% of Washington Households are living below the Self Sufficiency Standard. That percentage jumped to 38% of households in Federal Way, Des Moines, and Vashon Island. They’re all tied for the highest rate in King County.

“Especially with inflation and groceries and the cost of living, it’s not shocking at all. And I don’t think the wages are matching the cost of living,” said Loiseau. “I know we are technically above the poverty line but there’s not a lot of help.”

According to the Official Poverty Guidelines, a household of five has to make less than $35,140/yr to be considered living in poverty. UW Researcher Annie Kucklick, who co-authored the study, said their data backs what Loiseau is experiencing, that the official Poverty Guidelines leave struggling people out.

“In most places but in Washington you see that really specifically,” said Kucklick. “You’re thinking about costs so housing, childcare, food, healthcare. You’re seeing those rise pretty steadily, the slope is very steep, but when you’re looking at median earnings or the federal poverty guidelines you’re seeing this effect the slope is not increasing at the same rate so it’s causing this big gap.”

The basic needs the Self Sufficiency Standard includes in its measurement are things like childcare, housing, healthcare, miscellaneous expenses like cell phone and internet, and taxes. The study listed the top 20 jobs where people living below the standard work, cashier and janitor were the top two. Teachers and registered nurses were also on the list.

Of the households deemed to be under the Self Sufficiency Standard, 80% had at least one working adult. And 60% of those also had college credit, a bachelor’s degree, or even postgraduate degrees. The study also included single-resident households in the study.

“They’re not facing childcare costs but they’re facing really expensive rent costs and if you’re facing those costs and you’re supporting yourself with a lower wage position, you’re not going to be eligible for any benefits that might be supportive for you to close that gap,” Kucklick said.

Loiseau works opposite schedules from her husband to avoid childcare costs but said other costs still add up.

“Mortgage is $2500, food like I said $200-$300 a week, childcare luckily nothing, miscellaneous probably $600. Especially with kids just starting school there was picture day we had to pay for, school supplies, back-to-school clothing, shoes, and with three kids it adds up.”

The study also highlights racial disparities with glaring results from Seattle. In both Duwamish and Beacon Hill neighborhoods, 43% of households of color live below the Self Sufficiency Standard. That’s compared to just 12% of white households in the same neighborhoods. The Workforce Development Council of King County has a Self Sufficiency Standard calculator to see how your household measures up. You can find that here.