What is the Self-Sufficiency Standard?

The Self-Sufficiency Standard defines the amount of income necessary  to meet basic needs (including taxes) without public subsidies (e.g., public housing, food stamps, Medicaid or child care) and without private/informal assistance (e.g., free babysitting by a relative or friend, food provided by churches or local food banks, or shared housing). 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 two-adult families with three teenagers.

Why was the Self-Sufficiency Standard developed?

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 (now known as WIA, the Workforce Investment Act program). 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 37 states and the District of Columbia. 

How does the Self-Sufficiency Standard differ from the Federal Poverty Measure?

First conceived nearly five decades ago by Molly Orshansky, the official federal poverty level has now become out-of-date.

The federal poverty level (FPL) is based on USDA food budgets that meet minimal nutritional standards. Because families in the 1950s spent an average of one-third of their income on food, it was assumed that multiplying the food budget by three would result in an amount that would be adequate to meet other basic needs as well.  Since its creation, the FPL has only been updated for inflation.  FPL thresholds reflect the number of adults and children, but they do not vary by age of children, nor by place.

In contrast…

The Self-Sufficiency Standard is based on ALL major budget items faced by working adults, not just food. These basic needs include housing, child care, food, health care, transportation, taxes, and miscellaneous costs.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard calculates the most recent local or regional costs of each basic need.  Accounting for regional or local variation is particularly important for housing because housing costs vary widely (e.g., the most expensive areas of the country, such as Manhattan, can cost four times as much as in the least expensive areas, such as Mississippi, for equivalent size units).

The Self-Sufficiency Standard varies costs by age groups of children (infants, preschoolers, school agers, and teenagers). This is especially important for child care, which varies substantially by age.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard reflects modern family practices, and assumes that all adults (whether married or single) work full-time. Thus the Standard includes the employment-related costs of transportation, taxes, and child care (when needed).  (Note that the Federal Poverty Level assumes a two-parent household with a stay-at-home parent, or single parents relying on welfare or family support. Therefore work-related expenses such as child care, taxes, and transportation are not considered).

The Self-Sufficiency Standard includes the net effect of federal and state taxes and tax credits, as well as any local taxes and tax credits.

The Standard’s real-world assumptions allow the costs of all basic needs—not just food—to vary over time and across geographic locations. With this up-dated and detailed approach, the Standard is able to develop a realistic measurement of the income requirements for 70 different family types across each county in a given state.

How is the Self-Sufficiency Standard Calculated?

Several different criteria are employed to ensure the Standard is as consistent and accurate as possible, yet varied by geography and family composition. To the extent feasible, the data used in the Self-Sufficiency Standard are:

  • collected or calculated using standardized or equivalent methodology nationwide;
  • obtained from scholarly or credible sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau;
  • set at minimum but adequate levels; (e.g., nutrition levels)
  • updated annually; and
  • varied geographically and/or by age as appropriate. 

A brief description of how the Self-Sufficiency Standard calculates the cost of housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, miscellaneous items, and taxes/taxes credits is found below.

For housing costs, the Standard uses the most recent Fair Market Rents (FMRs). These rates are calculated annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for each state’s metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas to set levels of housing assistance. FMRs include utilities (except telephone and cable) and reflect the cost of housing that meets basic standards of decency. In most cases, FMRs are set at the 40th percentile, meaning that 40% of the housing in a given area is less expensive than the FMR.

Since HUD calculates only one set of FMRs for an entire metropolitan area, in multiple county metropolitan areas the Standard uses U. S. Census data on median gross rents by county to vary housing costs within metropolitan areas.

To calculate the cost of child care, the Standard assumes market-rate costs (defined as the 75th percentile) by facility type, age of children, and geographical location. Most states conduct or commission market-rate surveys biannually for setting child care assistance reimbursement rates.

The Standard assumes infants (children 0 to 2 years old) receive child care in family day care. Preschoolers (children 3 to 5 years old) are assumed to be in center care. Costs for schoolage children (6 to 12 years old) assume they receive part-time care before and after school.

The Standard uses the U.S. Department of Agriculture Low-Cost Food Plan for food costs. The Low-Cost Food Plan was designed to meet minimum nutritional standards using realistic assumptions about food preparation time and consumption. As a conservative estimate of food costs, the Low-Cost Food Plan does not allow for any take-out, fast-food, or restaurant meals.

To vary costs within states, geographic differences in food costs are calculated using the ACCRA Cost of Living Index, published by the Council for Community and Economic Research.

If there is an “adequate” public transportation system in a given area, the Standard assumes workers use public transportation to get to and from work. A public transportation system is considered “adequate” if it is used by 7% or more of the working population in a given county. The cost of public transportation is calculated based on the price of a monthly adult pass.

If the area lacks “adequate” public transportation, private transportation is assumed.  Private transportation costs are based on the average cost of owning and operating a car. One car is assumed for households with one adult and two cars are assumed for households with two adults (as both are working, but presumably at different places and/or different hours). Costs are calculated assuming that the car(s) will be used to commute to and from work five days per week, plus one trip per week per household for shopping and errands.

In addition, one adult in each household with young children is assumed to have a slightly longer weekday trip to allow for “linking” trips to a day care site. For per-mile costs, driving cost data from the American Automobile Association is used. The local commuting distance is computed from the National Household Travel Survey.

The auto insurance premium is the average premium cost for a given state, calculated by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. To create within state variation (regional or county) in auto insurance premiums, ratios are created using sample premiums for the automobile insurance companies with the largest market shares in the state.

To estimate the fixed costs of car ownership, the Standard uses Consumer Expenditure Survey amounts for families with incomes between the 20th and 40th percentile. The fixed costs include expenses such as fire, theft, property damage and liability insurance, license, registration, taxes, repairs, monthly payments, and finance charges. The monthly variable costs (e.g., gas, oil, tires, and maintenance) are also included, but the initial cost of purchasing a car is not.

The Standard assumes that an integral part of a Self-Sufficiency Wage is employer-sponsored health insurance for workers and their families. The average health care premiums paid by workers are from the national Medical Panel Survey (MEPS) and vary for single adults and for a family.

To vary premium costs by county or regions within each state, the Standard uses average premiums from the health care insurance companies with the largest market shares or with the widest coverage. Health care costs also include   out-of-pocket costs calculated for adults and children by age, by region, obtained from the MEPS.

Miscellaneous expenses are calculated by taking 10% of all other costs. This expense category consists of all other essentials including clothing, shoes, paper products, diapers, nonprescription medicines, cleaning products, household items, personal hygiene items, and telephone service. It does not allow for recreation, entertainment, savings, or debt repayment.

Taxes include federal and state income tax, payroll taxes (Social Security), and state and local sales taxes where applicable. Additionally, the Standard includes federal tax credits (the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit) and applicable state tax credits.

How can the Self-Sufficiency Standard be used?

The Self-Sufficiency Standard is currently being used to better understand issues of income adequacy, to create and analyze policy, and to help individuals striving to meet their basic needs. Community organizations, academic researchers, policy institutes, legal advocates, training providers, community action agencies, and state and local officials, among others are using the Standard. Below are a few ways the Standard has been used.


  • New Jersey used the Standard to successfully lobby the state legislature to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $7.15 per hour.
  • The Self-Sufficiency Standard was an integral tool to increase Maryland’s EITC by an additional $40 million for the state’s low-income families.
  • The nonprofit organization, Alabama Arise, led a coalition that successfully advocated for more progressive taxes, thereby increasing the income level at which families begin paying taxes.
  • Pennsylvania used the Standard for an analysis of the impact of proposed child care co-payments on low-income working parents. This analysis was instrumental in preventing the proposed co-payments.
  • When the Oklahoma Department of Human Services proposed large increases in the child care co-payments, the Oklahoma Community Action Project of Tulsa County prepared an analysis helped rescind of the proposed increases.



  • Sonoma County, California adopted the Standard as its formal measure of self-sufficiency and as a benchmark for measuring success in welfare to work programs.
  • Under its Workforce Investment Act, the Chicago Workforce Investment Board adopted the Self-Sufficiency Standard as its self-sufficiency benchmark. (http://www.cityofchicago.org/WorkforceDevelopment/selfsuff.html)


  • At the request of the state of California, the Center for the Child Care Workforce used the Self-Sufficiency Standard in 2002 to develop specific salary guidelines by county (see http://www.ccw.org/data.html)
  • The Standard has been used in California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington State to advocate for higher wages through local Living Wage ordinances (city and county) and in negotiating labor union agreements.


  • In Washington, D.C., the Standard is being used as the definition of economic self-sufficiency to meet the wage eligibility level set by federal requirements for receiving intensive services.
  • The Colorado Center on Law and Policy successfully lobbied the Eastern Region Workforce Board in Fort Morgan, Colorado to officially adopt the Self-Sufficiency Standard to determine eligibility for intensive training services. (see http://www.cclponline.org/pubs/SelfSufficiency10-05.pdf)

Get a Self-Sufficiency Standard for Your State

The Self-Sufficiency Standard has been calculated for 37 states. To find out if a Standard has been calculated for your state click here. To find out information about creating a Standard for your state or to update an existing Standard, please email Judith Panlasigui jfp@u.washington.edu or call Dr. Diana Pearce at 206-616-2850.