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30% of county households don’t earn enough for basic expenses

Approximately one-third of people across Washington state do not earn enough income to provide themselves a basic survival budget for their living expenses, according to a new report from the United Ways of the Pacific Northwest. This group’s numbers are increasing, and it attributes the growth in residents’ vulnerability to rising costs and slow wage growth.
The study, which looked at economic data from 2007-18, found that “about 33 percent of households in Washington state are struggling to get by, from any given day they are only one broken down car or appliance away from possibly not being able to feed their family or even losing their home,” Jim Cooper, president and CEO of the organization, said in a presentation of the report.
He said this represents a 76 percent increase within this population over the decade, which included figures from before the last recession beginning in 2008.
Ten percent of these struggling households across the state were living below the federal poverty level. The remaining 23 percent were considered to be ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), meaning they had incomes greater than the federal threshold but still did not earn enough to afford basic household necessities. The number of ALICE households has grown significantly during the study’s timeframe, while the total of those in poverty remained relatively unchanged.
The assessment calculates cost of living expense categories by using local data for housing, child care, food, health care, transportation, a basic smartphone plan and taxes. It found that while worker vulnerability is increasing, labor growth has mainly been concentrated in low-wage jobs with minimal increases in pay, which typically have limited access to benefits. Consequently, people are having a more difficult time budgeting and planning for their essential needs.
In Snohomish County, more than 92,000, or approximately 30 percent, of households are falling short. Twenty-three percent of those were categorized as ALICE, which within this category represented an almost 29 percent increase since 2010. Many residents continue to struggle as wages fail to keep pace with the expenses of essentials, which are rising faster than the cost of other goods and services, according to the report.
More than half of the county’s labor force in 2018 worked at jobs that earn hourly pay rather than a salary.
“We need to be aware of the changing workforce and how to create an infrastructure to best care for all people,” Lark Kesterke, the interim President and CEO for United Way of Snohomish County, said by email. This includes adapting to new demands, like the varied schedules of more hourly jobs which don’t always align with a traditional morning-to-evening workday, with evolving support services to help meet people’s needs.
There are pronounced demographic inequalities in the report’s findings, Cooper explained.
“I think everyone in the nation is talking about racial inequality or inequity at the moment and the ALICE data shows that very clearly, and it stands out much more clearly when you drill down at the county or city level,” he said.
From the report’s figures and analysis for race and ethnicity, Black, Hispanic and Hawaiian households in Snohomish County are each more than one-and-a-half times as likely to be struggling to afford basic necessities when compared to those identifying as either white or Asian.
“We must acknowledge that the ALICE population, particularly households from communities of color, feel the echoes of those inequities as generational wealth is built for some but not all,” Kesterke said.
Gaps in disparities are reflected across gender lines as well. Single-parent families have a much harder time meeting a bare minimum survival budget, but especially those that are headed by single females. According to the data for Snohomish County, they are straining to get by at nearly twice the rate of households headed by single men.
Kesterke said many families or individuals with low income never recovered from the previous recession and that the study reports on the indicators of systemic inequities. “We need to understand how all aspects of meeting our basic needs are interconnected — adequate wages, housing, childcare, transportation — to name a few,” she said. “In addition, the overall health and well-being of those who meet or are below ALICE characteristics are disproportionately affected by chronic stress, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and trauma associated with the realities of poverty.”
Dr. Ali Modarres, who is Director of Urban Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma and also served on the study’s research advisory committee, said the results and increase in ALICE households were eye-opening. He warns it also helps to provide a fundamental view of a long-term trend.
“We have been watching for 30 to 40 years, (the) service economy with low wages grow as the cost of living has gone up, housing has gone up, everything has gone up,” Modarres said. “And as this report suggests, there is this gap between wages and the cost of living is increasing so rapidly that larger and larger populations are going to fall into this category of ALICE.”
Because these populations consist of working people with inadequate income and little to no savings or assets to fall back on, they are currently in an even more dire situation when faced with a major economic challenge in their lives. “Well the significant event happened, and the significant event is the pandemic,” Modarres said.
Cooper said that it is key to think about the report as a baseline for where people were at financially in 2018, which includes data from coming out of the previous recession. He also believes it provides a lesson and demonstrates that society must do a much better job when recovering from the current economic and health crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Modarres feels the report shows that society needs to consider changes in policy and how it approaches income.
“We need to think about how we run our economy in a way that those who work within it are protected,” he said.

Explore the report
The latest ALICE report is online at
To research deeper data for Snohomish County, go to and then use their County Profile Tool to select “Snohomish.”
To research data by ZIP code or Census tract, on the county profile, scroll to near the bottom to see the section called “How Does the Number of ALICE Households Vary Within the County?”


Editor's note: Graphics are in the print version of this story that are forthcoming for the online version.



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