Still Struggling to Make Ends Meet: A report on living wages in Washington State


July 2018

Workers across the country face difficulties making ends meet; the same is true in Washington State. Two years ago, in an attempt to help the minimum wage keep pace with increased cost of living, voters in Washington State approved Initiative 1433. While that provided a much-need- ed boost to the state’s minimum wage, workers and their families continue to struggle with a wage that doesn’t allow them to meet all of their needs.

While Initiative 1433 has increased the minimum wage faster than would have occurred with previous inflation-based adjustments, the state minimum wage still falls short of a living wage.

A living wage is the amount a full-time worker must be paid in order to make ends meet, including setting aside money for emergencies and for some savings. In Washington State, the statewide living wage for a single adult is $17.85 per hour, or $37,123.06 per year, far exceeding the current state minimum wage of $11.50. A worker with no dependents who is paid minimum wage must work 62.1 hours per week to make ends meet.

For working families with children, the cost of living is even greater. Statewide, a single adult with two children must be paid $34.90 per hour or more to make ends meet. Even in a two-parent family with two children, where both parents are working, each parent needs to be paid at least $22.06 per hour to meet all of their family’s needs.

Download the Full Report (pdf)

Patchwork of Paychecks Fact Sheet

“Patchwork of Paychecks”

Fact Sheet 

Nationally, four of the top five fastest growing occupations pay less than $15 an hour. They are: retail salespersons; waiters and waitresses; cashiers; and food preparation and serving workers, including fast food.

  • Nationally, for jobs that pay at least $15 per hour, there are seven job seekers for every job opening.
  • The occupation category with the most projected job openings, retail salesperson, pays a median wage of $10.29 per hour.
  • Nationwide, there are more than 17.7 million job seekers. There are 5 million job openings total, paying any wage. Of those, 2.7 million pay at least $15 an hour.
  • In 34 states, less than half of all job openings pay enough for a single adult to make ends meet.
  • In California, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and South Carolina there are 10 job seekers for every living wage job opening.

People of Color

  • The Alliance reported last year that only 52 percent of full-time workers of color earn $15 per hour or more. This includes:
  • 51 percent of black workers
  • 50 percent of Native American workers.
  • 42 percent of full-time Latino and Latina workers
  • 57 percent of female workers earn at least $15 per hour.

Part-Time Work

  • The proportion of involuntary part-time workers is double what it was before the Great Recession (11 percent of part-time workers were involuntarily working part-time in 2007 compared to 21 percent in 2014).
  • Latinas and Latinos, and workers of color are more likely to work part-time in most states and nationally, making it even more difficult for them to make ends meet.
  • Part-time work also includes a number of other obstacles to making ends meet. Unpredictable or on-call scheduling is more common for part-time workers than for workers overall, and makes it nearly impossible to work more than one part-time job.

Pay Up! Long Hours and Low Pay Leave Workers at a Loss

In recent years, a number of cities have raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is significantly above federal and state minimum wages. These changes have prompted debate around the country regarding what constitutes an adequate minimum. This report contributes to that conversation by providing living wage figures, finding that current minimum wage rates are far too low to meet individuals’ and families’ needs.

Pay Up CoverBy Allyson Fredericksen

Pay Up! Report (pdf)

How many hours does a minimum wage worker have to put in to make ends meet?

Our table has the answer for all 50 states.

Collective Bargaining is a Valuable Tool for Workers to Make Ends Meet

Working full-time should allow workers to make ends meet; instead, many workers across the country continue to be paid wages that leave them living paycheck-to-paycheck. As we’ve shown in our Job Gap Economic Prosperity Series since 1999, a living wage is well above the minimum wage that too many workers are paid.

Our recent report, “Low Wage Nation,” shows that nearly half of new jobs are low-wage jobs. In October, we will release a new installment showing that a living wage across the country is well above the federal minimum wage, and above state minimum wages.

But, the question remains, what needs to be done so that workers are paid a living wage?

One policy recommendation is to increase the minimum wage nationwide, lifting the wage floor for all workers. Another recommendation is to strengthen unions and support collective bargaining efforts by workers, especially in occupations that have not traditionally been unionized or have seen resistance from employers, such as fast food and retail.

The Alliance for a Just Society believes that all jobs should be good jobs, and unions are strong tools for making that a reality.

Union members earn higher wages than non-union members, and the gender wage gap is less for unionized workplaces than it is for those that are not unionized. In addition, though, unions put upward pressure on wages for all workers – even those whose workplaces are not unionized.

Furthermore, collective bargaining can also help lower the cost of living, making it easier for working families to make ends meet. Union efforts have helped workers gain access to affordable health insurance and retirement funds, including pensions.

Benefits like paid sick leave and paid family leave make sure that workers are paid while they care for their own health and when they care for their families.

As worker-led organizing like the Fight for 15 and Our Walmart have shown, workers in fast food and retail face harsh opposition to higher wages, workplace protections, access to health insurance, fair scheduling, and more. It is no surprise that workers in the Fight for 15 movement trying to make ends meet now ask not only for a $15 wage – but for $15 and a union.

In Weighing Racial Discrimination, Consider Outcome, Not Just Intent

In the last two weeks, the Supreme Court handed down some monumental decisions: health care subsidies were upheld, ensuring millions will continue to see the benefits of the Affordable Care Act; and marriage equality became the law of the land, allowing LGBTQI people to marry. But, there was another major decision tucked in there, too: in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs et al v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., et al, the Supreme Court affirmed that it is not the intent of racial discrimination that matters, but the impact.

In some instances, rules may be in place that appear to be colorblind or even prevent racial discrimination, but racial bias and racist actions still lead to disparate impact. This was the case in Seattle, where the city’s Office for Civil Rights uncovered evidence of discrimination at 13 rental properties across the city. There, prospective tenants were treated differently depending on their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and/or national origin. Such discrimination is not limited to housing, of course; people of color, especially, are discriminated against in nearly all areas of life, including policing, employment, and childhood education.

When we envision discrimination, we typically think of situations like these where it comes from individuals and leads to a broader impact on people of color.

However, the recent Supreme Court decision centered on a case where funds designed in part to combat segregation were distributed so that they instead contributed to continuing segregation. Here, it was not racist individuals or racial bias that led to such disparate impact; it was, instead, a lack of recognizing that impact and thinking strategically about alternatives that could better counter the existing segregation.

This short-sightedness and lack of a racial justice lens led to a concentration of low-income housing in communities of color, contributing to, rather than changing a system that ghettoizes low-income communities of color.

On July 8, President Obama announced stricter rules against housing segregation, including requiring local governments to account for “how they will use federal housing funds to reduce racial disparities.” This is an important step in helping local governments avoid the short-sighted actions that occurred in Texas, and could make significant progress in addressing the concentration of poverty in communities of color.

However, we must recognize that systemic and economic racism are entwined within more aspects of our society than housing. Expecting a housing fix to assure we avoid the 1968 prophecy noted by Justice Kennedy that the nation “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and un-equal” would itself be short-sighted. Instead, we must seek to recognize, call out, and address all policies and actors that, intentionally or not, perpetuate a system of economic racism. Whether in health outcomes, voting rights, policing, higher education, employment, or nearly any other area, policies and actions must take into account their impact on people of color in order to dismantle to a system of economic racism that has existed in this country for far too long.

More Low Paying Jobs Means Families Continue to Struggle

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has released the Employment Situation Summary, commonly known as the “jobs report,” for May. While many news outlets had headlines lauding May’s jobs numbers, at least some are beginning to come around to a fact that we have been stating for months: too many of these new jobs are in low-wage work.

Rather than being good jobs that pay enough to meet basic needs, these jobs leave working families without the ability to make ends meet.

Nonfarm payroll, which includes all industries that are not farm-related, increased by 280,000 in May. Most of that increase comes from service-providing industries like retail. Unfortunately, a significant portion of these jobs are in traditionally low-paying industries, with three of the top four increases in service-providing industries that have average hourly earnings below $15 per hour.

This includes industries we’ve called out before like leisure and hospitality (which includes food service) and retail, as well as professional and business services. Additionally, within professional and business services, a large portion of the growth came from temporary help services – jobs that do not ensure stable employment.

The May Jobs Report showed a continuation of a trend away from high-paying jobs and toward low-paying and even temporary employment. As we reported in “Low Wage Nation,” there are not enough good-paying jobs to go around, and growth in low-wage industries only exacerbates the problem.

With seven job seekers for every job opening that pays at least $15 per hour, too many working families will continue to struggle, even with May’s job growth.

However, there is some hopeful news in the May Jobs Report, as well. The industry with the highest increase in employment was Education and Health Services, with most of that increase coming from Health Care and Social Assistance.

As mentioned in “Low Wage Nation,” occupations in this industry pay relatively high wages, and are a great investment for states as they create good jobs and help working families care for their own health, as well. While the BLS data does not specify where this job growth originated, it is likely that at least some of it is due to continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the growing number of states that have expanded Medicaid.

Moving forward, we hope that this strong increase in health care jobs continues. However, investment in even more high-paying industries also needs to be a priority, as does increasing wages across the board so that all jobs can become good jobs. Until then, as long as employment growth continues to happen largely in lower-paying industries, working families will struggle to make ends meet without enough high-paying jobs to go around.