What it takes to be self-sufficient varies by county
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
How much money do you need in Colorado to survive without outside help?
A new calculation of the cost of living shows it’s getting harder for families to meet their needs.
On average, Coloradans needed to earn 53 percent more money to get by without public assistance in 2015 compared to 2001, according to the current “Self-Sufficiency Standard” released this month by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.
Self-sufficiency is defined as the amount an individual or family needs to earn to meet their basic needs without public assistance, such as Medicaid or public housing, or private help, such as donations from a food bank or free baby-sitting from a relative. The calculations are meant to be a more accurate measure of the cost of basic needs than the federal poverty level.
The standard is calculated by researchers at the University of Washington, who use data from agencies including the U.S. Census Bureau on housing, child care, food, transportation, taxes, emergency savings and miscellaneous costs such as clothing, shoes and diapers. The calculations also account for a family’s potential earnings through tax credits.
In Colorado, the wage you need to be self-sufficient depends on the number of working adults and the age of your children. The cost of living in rural counties is less than in metropolitan areas. For example, you would need $6.81 an hour as a family of two childless adults in Bent County — as long as you both were working 40 hours per week — but you would need $63.79 an hour as a single-parent with three infants in Pitkin County.
The recent report shows it is impossible for a single adult to be self-sufficient on the current minimum wage of $8.23 an hour anywhere in Colorado with the exception of three rural counties — Bent, Otero and Custer. Self-sufficiency is even further out of reach for single parents on the minimum wage, according to the data.
Meanwhile, wages have decreased for workers at the bottom of the ladder, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank focused on low- and middle-income workers’ issues.
Jobs that pay a living wage are scarce, said Teva Sienicki, CEO of Westminster non-profit Growing Home, especially without a college diploma.
“I think that the idea of self-sufficiency is a myth for the majority of families, honestly,” she said.
Jennifer Wall lives in Englewood with her 11-year-old daughter, one dog named Luna, and six replicas of frogs decorating the porch. She has a GED and a job as a truck dispatcher, working 40 hours a week at $12.50 an hour.
But Wall would have to work almost 70 hours a week at her wage — or earn $20.92 an hour — to be considered “self-sufficient” in Arapahoe County. Or Wall could move to Crowley County, for example, where the hourly self-sufficiency wage for her family type is $12.88 an hour.
“I don’t even know if I could find a job in a place like that,” she said.
Instead, Wall relies on state child-care assistance, Medicaid for her children and Section 8 housing.
“Frankly if I didn’t have that, that would really put a strain on me,” she said.
The measurement is different from the federal poverty line. For most families, even if you are above the federal poverty line ($15,930 for a family of two, for example) you still might not make enough to meet your needs without help.
Some occupations can provide a living wage for people without higher education, said Anita Davis, the manager of workforce development operations at the Denver Office of Economic Development.
A job as a medical lab tech, as a software or web developer or as a machinist in advanced manufacturing could provide an opportunity to move up as long as a worker is qualified, she said, but cashiers and restaurant servers might find it tough to gain skills and experience to qualify for the higher paying jobs.
“Our goal is to move those individuals into a more self-sufficient wage and ability to provide for their family,” Davis said.
Meanwhile, Wall is reluctant to make a few dollars more an hour. She is afraid having a slightly higher income could make her ineligible for the housing assistance she relies on, Wall said, and vulnerable if she suddenly lost her job.
“I can stay at this end and still be above water, or make above and then if something happens, then what? Lose my house? My car? Live in my mom’s basement?”
For now, she is just living day to day with what she can, Wall said.
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