Living to Work? Or Working to Live? Exploring Living Wages in Oregon

by Shawna Sykes

September 4, 2018

Is earning a living wage being paid enough to eat caviar and drink champagne every day? Technically, no. A living wage is a wage which allows you to be self-sufficient, living without public or private assistance for things like food, housing, energy, childcare, transportation, etc. This wage varies by geographic location and family make-up. So earning enough to support yourself in a studio apartment in Portland would take a different wage than supporting a family of four in Baker City. In either case, a living wage is earning enough money to meet all of your family’s basic needs. If Mom and Dad still pay your cell phone bill or your car insurance, you’re not self-sufficient. If you are receiving SNAP benefits for food, you’re not self-sufficient. And if you’re still living in your parents’ basement, you’re not self-sufficient.

In a recent report prepared for Worksystems entitled The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Oregon 2017, Dr. Diana Pearce, director of the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington has developed the wage measures for self-sufficiency for each Oregon county. This Self-Sufficiency Standard is a wage adequate to pay for housing, childcare, food, miscellaneous items, health care, transportation, taxes, and leave some cash for an emergency savings fund. The Standard has been calculated for about 700 different family types ranging from single adult up to a family of ten adults and ten children for each county in Oregon.

The self-sufficiency wage budget is “bare bones” with just enough income to meet basic needs, and no extras. So the food budget includes groceries prepared at home. Transportation includes commuting to work and day care plus one trip to the grocery store per week, no more. It assumes that you have employer-provided health insurance but that you may have to pay a portion of the monthly premium or pay some charges out-of-pocket. There’s no budget for having pizza delivered, going to the State Fair, or even a subscription to Netflix. It’s just the essentials, no more.

How Do the Counties Compare?

Metropolitan counties tend to be the most expensive places to live and have the highest self-sufficiency wage requirements. They also tend to have the largest number of jobs that pay at or above the self-sufficiency wage. Conversely, rural areas tend to be more affordable, have the lowest self-sufficiency wage requirements, and have the smallest number of jobs paying at or above the self-sufficiency wage.

Self-sufficiency standard wages vary greatly based on family size, location, and family make-up. For instance, a household of one adult does not have childcare expenses while a household with multiple small children may spend up to half of their budget for housing and childcare combined. 
Only One-Fourth of Jobs Statewide Meet Standard For Family of Four

When we examine the self-sufficiency standard wage for a family with two adults, one infant, and one preschooler statewide, only 25 percent (about 528,000) of Oregon jobs meet the self-sufficiency wage threshold.
While metro counties have the largest number of jobs at or above the self-sufficiency standard wage for a family of four, rural counties have a higher percentage of jobs that meet or exceed the self-sufficiency wage for their area. The counties with the largest number of jobs meeting the self-sufficiency wage for this family of four were Multnomah, Washington, Marion, Clackamas, and Lane counties.

The self-sufficiency standard calculates how much income families need to make ends meet without public or private assistance. Colors show hourly wage range necessary for a family of two adults, one infant and one preschooler to be self-sufficient while size of circles shows concentration of jobs in the county.’

For this family of four, Washington County is the most expensive of all Oregon counties to live in, requiring $85,022 annually just to meet basic needs, and more than twice the cost for the same family to live in Malheur County ($38,253) which has the lowest self-sufficiency standard wage. Multnomah County is second highest ($84,235), followed by Clackamas ($82,329), Hood River ($73,436), and Benton counties ($72,810). The difference in living expenses from the highest cost county to the lowest is influenced heavily by the much higher costs of childcare, housing, and taxes in the metro area counties.
The counties with the lowest self-sufficiency wage for this same family of four are Malheur ($38,253), Grant ($40,805), Gilliam ($41,669), Lake ($42,492), and Josephine ($42,791).

For Singles Clackamas County Most Expensive, Malheur Least Expensive

For a single adult with no children, the most expensive county with the highest self-sufficiency standard wage in Oregon is Clackamas County ($29,536). Washington County is second highest ($29,053), followed by Yamhill ($27,151), Columbia ($26,251), and Multnomah ($25,360).

The most affordable counties to live in for a single adult are Malheur ($18,309), Morrow ($18,372), Lake ($18,424), Wheeler ($18,501), and Douglas ($18,517). For these counties, a single person could meet their basic financial needs working a full-time (40 hours per week) minimum wage job.

How Do People Survive on Low-Wage Jobs in High-Cost Areas?

It’s not easy. Some may live with family or friends in tight quarters to lower overall housing costs. Those working in food service may earn meals as a work benefit, helping lower their monthly grocery bill. Others may work multiple jobs, or have a home-based business to earn extra money. There are also many organizations and programs designed to help low-income individuals and families to make ends meet. These programs may help reduce the costs of housing, food, energy bills, health insurance, and childcare.

Casey Wheeler, director of the Columbia-Pacific Food Bank in Columbia County indicates, “Although the number of households served by the food bank has declined slightly, the number of individuals served per household has increased, probably due to higher housing costs. Many who frequent the food bank indicate that their first 2 – 3 paychecks per month go to pay rent leaving little for other expenses.”

Nearly half (47%) of Oregon Health Plan non-disabled benefit recipients aged 19 to 64 worked during the third quarter of 2017, and about 40 percent of those worked 30 hours per week or more, according to the Oregon Health Authority. The most common industries of employment by these benefit recipients were accommodation and food services (2017 average wage of $20,392; 40% of state average) and retail trade (2017 average wage of $30,499; 60% of state average.)  

Not Just to Survive, but Thrive

A living wage isn’t just a flat dollar amount for everyone, it depends on your family type and where you live. You have different expenses if you are single or have a family. Costs of living are very different in Portland than they are in Baker City. And I think many would argue that earning only enough to barely make ends meet (self-sufficiency) is not the end goal. We don’t just want to survive. We want to thrive.

Workforce training opportunities through the WorkSource Oregon partners can help individuals to obtain the advanced skills they need to get a job earning a living wage and move their family toward long-term self-sufficiency. For more information about the services available to help you increase your skills and find a higher-wage job, go to or visit your local WorkSource Oregon center.

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