​The Self-Sufficiency Standard defines the income working families need to meet their basic necessities without public or private assistance. Basic minimum needs include: housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, miscellaneous expenses (clothing, telephone, household items), and taxes (minus federal and state tax credits) plus an additional calculation for emergency savings. The Standard is calculated for 719 different family types for each county or area in a state.

The family types for which a Standard is calculated range from one adult with no children, to one adult with one infant, one adult with one preschooler, and so forth, up to three-adult families with six teenagers. 

The Self-Sufficiency Standard was created in the mid-1990s by Dr. Diana Pearce, who at that time was Director of the Women and Poverty Project at Wider Opportunities for Women. The Standard was intended initially as a performance measure for the goal of “self-sufficiency” in federal job training programs. It was a measure that provided realistic and detailed data on what clients individually needed to be self-sufficient. First calculated for Iowa in 1996, it experienced a major expansion with funding by the Ford Foundation in the early 2000s, and today, the Standard can be found in 41 states and the District of Columbia. 

“The Standard grew out of my early work on ‘the feminization of poverty’– that is that women are disproportionately bearing the burden of poverty…with welfare reform pushing some women into the workforce without sufficient training and education, I was asked by women’s advocates to devise a ‘performance’ measure that was specific to individuals. Since many of the women (but few men) were single parents, this measure would then make clear that they needed enough to support a family, not just a single person.”

-Dr. Diana Pearce

The official poverty measure (OPM), developed half a century ago, is now methodologically out of date and no longer accurately measures the ability to provide for oneself and one’s family—at best it measures deprivation. The OPM calculation is based only on the cost of food—assuming that food is one-third of a family’s budget. The Standard is based on the costs of all basic needs of a working family—not just food, but also housing, child care, health care, transportation, miscellaneous costs, plus taxes and tax credits.

Unlike the OPM’s one-size-fits-all model which varies costs just by the size of the family and number of children, the Standard costs also vary by the age of the children—for example, child care costs differ dramatically by age. Finally, while the OPM is the same throughout the entire continental U.S. the Standard varies for each county or area in a state.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard is a measure of income adequacy that is based on the real cost of all basic needs, for working families: housing, child care, food, health care, transportation, and miscellaneous items, as well as the cost of taxes and the impact of tax credits. This measure describes how much income families of various sizes and compositions need to make ends meet without public or private assistance in each county in Washington State.

Read more about the Official Poverty Measure and how it differs from the Standard

First, the basic costs for each family type (which vary by number and age of children, and by number of adults) are added in each county. Ten percent of this total is added for miscellaneous costs. Finally, taxes and tax credits are calculated using formulas that calculate the state and federal income and payroll taxes as well as sales tax (where applicable). 

The goal for creating the Self-Sufficiency Standard is to calculate the amount needed to meet each basic need at a minimally adequate level, without public or private assistance, and to do so in a way that makes the Standard as consistent and accurate as possible. In general, data for each budget category comes from scholarly or credible sources, such as the U.S. Census Bureau; are updated annually; and are age- and geographically-specific, as appropriate. Whenever available, the Standard uses government-calculated numbers of what is minimally adequate, such as the USDA food budgets based on nutrition requirements or HUD’s Fair Market Rents for housing assistance. 

For more detailed information please see Methodology of the Self-Sufficiency Standard

The data was developed to provide a more accurate measure of what families must earn in order to meet their basic needs in a county and family specific manner. Individuals can use this data to understand what it takes to meet basic needs in their community.  The Standard has been used by government entities, advocates, and service providers to change policies and programs in a number of ways including: as a benchmark for evaluation and program improvement; as a guideline for determining eligibility and need for services; as a counseling tool; to create online calculators; as a public education tool; and as a guideline for wage-setting and living wage campaigns.

For more examples of the ways organizations apply the Self-Sufficiency Standard in their work please visit The Standard in Practice

Yes, the Self-Sufficiency Standard reports provide both a historical analysis and wage adequacy modeling of locally available work supports in reports funded by our partners (see Washington State’s 2020 report). The historical analysis reviews how the Self-Sufficiency Standard changes over time from previous year calculations. The historical analysis also offers a comparison of the Self-Sufficiency Standard change over time with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation, showing that CPI underestimates cost increases at a basic needs level. Additionally, the Center for Women’s Welfare provides wage adequacy modeling, demonstrating how essential public benefits can increase wage adequacy so families are able to make ends meet.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard has been calculated for 41 states. Find out if a Standard has been calculated for your state. To find out information about creating a Standard for your state or to update an existing Standard, please contact the Center for Women’s Welfare at or 206-685-5264.