Self-Sufficiency Standard

Smiling couple outside with toddler

Throughout our state, incomes well above the Federal Poverty Level are still far below what is necessary for families to meet their basic needs.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard for North Carolina 2020 tracks the true cost of living facing North Carolina families today. It highlights the growing gap between sluggish wages and ever-increasing expenses, clearly illuminating the economic “crunch” experienced by so many families today. By tracking and calculating the true cost of living facing American families, the Standard allows for comparisons of geographic differences as well as documentation of historical trends.

United Way of North Carolina supported the development of the Self-Sufficiency Standard for North Carolina 2020 to ensure the best data and analyses are available to enable North Carolina’s families and individuals to make progress toward real economic security. Local United Ways in North Carolina are addressing community problems, many through collaborative efforts with government, business, and other nonprofit organizations. Their hands on approach is leading to neighborhood engagement where self-defined strategies for improvement spurs a family’s upward mobility. The Self-Sufficiency Standard will help local United Ways and their partners build a case for collaborative strategies that will meet community challenges and create lasting change. 


  • In North Carolina, the amount needed to be economically self-sufficient varies considerably by geographic location and family type. 
  • For families with young children, the cost of housing and child care combined typically account for approximately half of the family's budget. 
  • Over the past two decades, cost increases have far outstripped wage increases. 
  • The federal poverty measure for three-person families ($21,720 annually) is set at a level well below what is minimally adequate to meet a family's basic needs. 
  • Although a quarter of North carolina workers hold one of the top ten most common occupations in North Carolina, only one of these occupations (registered nurses) have median wages above the Standard for a family of three in Forsyth county. 
  • Maintaining an emergency savings fund is a crucial step towards economic security. 


Click the images below to download the Self-Sufficiency Standard reports from 2020 and 2017, as well as the 2017 Economic Security Pathways Report.      

The Self-Sufficiency Standard Report for NC 2020

The Self-Sufficiency Standard Report for NC 2017

Economic Security Pathways Report 2017



The Self-Sufficiency Standard is the amount needed to meet each basic need at a minimally adequate level, without public or private assistance. The Standard is calculated for over 700 family types for all North Carolina counties. The budgets are “bare bones,” with just enough allotted to meet basic needs, but no extras. Expenses include housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, miscellaneous, taxes/tax credits, and emergency savings. For more details on how each category is calculated, download the 2020 Self-Sufficiency Standard Report. 

The Federal Poverty Level (FPL) is a five-decades-old calculation based on the cost of food, and assumes 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 FPL’s one-size-fits-all model, these costs vary, not just by the size of the family and number of children, as with the FPL, but also by the age of the children, as some costs, particularly child care, differ dramatically by age. Finally, while the FPL is the same no matter where one lives the Standard varies for each county or area in a state.

In general, for each category, data 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.

The Standard has been used by government entities, advocates and service providers to assess and 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 has been calculated for 38 states, Washington D.C. and New York City. Standards are available for Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York City, New York State, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington State, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

No. Because the Self-Sufficiency Standard is calculated using the real costs of goods and services purchased in the regular marketplace, it reflects the real expenses consumers face. The Self-Sufficiency Standard is a no-frills budget that does not allow for entertainment, carry-out or fast food, savings, or emergency expenses such as car repairs. Nevertheless, many families lack a Self-Sufficiency level income and manage to survive. If they do, however, it is reasonable to assume that they are getting help meeting their needs with public or private subsidies, and/or they are foregoing one or more needs such as using less desirable child care, doubling-up or living in substandard housing, obtaining free food or doing without, or not obtaining needed health care.

No. The Self-Sufficiency Standard sets a goal for workers. Achieving self-sufficiency is a process that involves not just finding a job with certain wages and benefits, but achieving income security over time. There are several ways—separately or in combination—that workers can achieve self-sufficiency. They can receive temporary work supports until their wages increase. In addition, they can obtain training and/or education that will prepare them for higher-wage jobs. Finally, they can combine low-wage jobs with self-employment initiatives.

Yes, sometimes it is unrealistic. Yet it is reasonable to hold employers responsible for paying decent wages and providing benefits, such as health insurance and benefits to their workers. At the same time, employers are only one of several stakeholders who have a role in ensuring that families have incomes sufficient to cover their costs. The government has a role in ensuring that job training and education, as well as work supports such as child care assistance, are affordable and accessible to families. Individuals are responsible for taking advantage of opportunities to invest in themselves and their potential.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard calculates the amount of income a given family would need to cover all of their basic needs without public or private supports. “Living wage” ordinances require public entities—such as a city or county government, as well as sometimes private businesses contracting with the government—to pay their employees a “living wage.” Across the country, “living wages” have ranged anywhere from $9.00 to $16.00 an hour, with many requiring businesses to pay a higher wage if health insurance is not provided to the employee. Twenty-nine states plus the D.C. have minimum wage rates higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The highest, Washington, is $13.50 per hour. 



County Data Sheets

Do you know how much it takes to be self-sufficient in your county? - use the Our Money Needs Calculator to determine the budget for your family.