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An updated self-sufficiency standard takes a deep-dive into the cost of living in Wyoming

A tiled image with blocks of orange and red, and images of people and children studying, working and playing. It includes the text “Wyoming 2024 Self-Sufficiency Standard: Prepared for the Wyoming Women’s Foundation.
Center for Women's Welfare
Wyoming Women’s Foundation
The cover of the report on the Wyoming 2024 Self-Sufficiency Standard.

How much money does someone need to make ends meet in Wyoming? An updated self-sufficiency standard and interactive calculator from the Wyoming Women’s Foundation (WYWF) aims to answer that question pretty specifically by taking into account factors like location, family size and age of kids.

WYWF Director Bekah Smith Hazelton said the self-sufficiency standard is a more thorough assessment than the country’s official poverty measure, which has a threshold primarily based on the cost of food.

“The official poverty measure was developed in the 1950s and it was based on the cost of food times three, which seems really arbitrary. It is really exciting that this is a much more realistic measure of what the costs are for families,” she said.

The costs used in the self-sufficiency standard include things like housing, childcare, transportation, health care, taxes and inflation when figuring out how much income a family needs to survive on their own, without any public or private assistance.

As to be expected, location has a significant influence on the cost of living. The report found that the lowest end of the spectrum was Goshen County, where a single parent with one preschooler needs to earn about $21 dollars an hour to pay the bills. On the high end of the spectrum, that same single parent in Teton County would need to be making about $36 an hour to make ends meet.

That number has changed significantly over the last two decades. The report found that the average cost of meeting a family of four’s basic needs in the state has more than doubled in the last twenty years, with the biggest increases in Crook, Sheridan, Johnson, Teton and Lincoln Counties.

The self-sufficiency standard was first calculated for Wyoming in 2005 at the direction of then-governor Dave Freudenthal, and his administration calculated the standard again two years later. In 2015, Hazelton said the foundation came across the tool, which was in big need of an update.

“We were like, ‘This would be a really great thing to have, but it's completely out-of-date.’ We began talking to folks around the state that had been involved in the calculation in the 2005 - 2007 period and they were like, ‘We used it all the time, we loved the calculator, but we can't use it anymore because it's out of date’,” she said.

The foundation then collaborated with the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington, which has developed a methodology for calculating the standard that has been applied to over forty states. WYWF then released standards in 2016 and in February of 2020, right before the onset of the pandemic.

Hazelton said the foundation gave a presentation about the standard at a recent conference for nonprofits in the state. They passed out worksheets and had attendees guess what the different costs for things like housing and food might be, then compared those to what the standard found. She said one big surprise to some was just how expensive childcare is now.

“Everywhere in Wyoming, the access to [childcare] is just really difficult – partly because of trying to get enough workers trying to sustain a business that has really thin margins,” said Hazelton.

WYWF Associate Director Micah Richardson said the data from the self-sufficiency standards over the years also point to a big gap in earnings by gender.

“Wyoming women have barely surpassed the median earnings made by men in 2005, which is disappointing,” she said.

The standard and corresponding calculator have a wide range of uses, from advocating for higher wages to calculating the potential impacts of a social services grant in a given community. Richardson said the tool is also used by nonprofits and the Wyoming Department of Family Services and Workforce Services to work directly with individuals making decisions about employment or higher education.

“There are organizations who are working with youth, who want to sit down with them and show what exactly do you need if you aren't going to college, if you are going to college? What does this look like?,” she said.

Katie Hogarty is the CEO of Climb Wyoming, a state-wide nonprofit that works with single moms across the state to break cycles of generational poverty. She said the organization really values the self-sufficiency calculator.

“Climb uses it as one of many tools to help our participants navigate higher wages and the loss of benefits,” she said.

WYWF Director Hazelton said the self-sufficiency standard and calculator can also be used as a policy tool to change eligibility requirements for public assistance programs like Medicaid and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), in order to better support those who are experiencing a gap between what they earn and what they need to survive.

“What happens when the self-sufficiency standard is much higher than wages? Those work supports can help with getting families to self-sufficiency to the wage that they need to, so they can reach stabilization and start to gain skills they need for a job for a higher wage,” she said.

WYWF will host a deep-dive into the findings from this year’s standard at a public Zoom meeting on June 17.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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