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Originally published October 31, 2011 at 7:00 PM | Page modified November 1, 2011 at 9:41 AM

Getting by getting harder for more families in state

Times have always been tough for single moms, but a new study from the University of Washington says times have never been tougher than now.

The Associated Press

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Kim Nieves has modest goals for improving her new apartment in Issaquah. She dreams of sitting at a table to share a meal with her 13-year-old son, but extra money for furniture for her sparsely decorated home is something this single mother doesn't have.

Nieves, a freelance translator and student at Bellevue College, is a whiz at budgeting, her son brags. But she said every time she saves up a few dollars, she ends up spending it on an emergency like car repairs.

"It's extremely frustrating, but we do with what we have," Nieves said.

Times have always been tough for single mothers, but a new study from the University of Washington says times have never been tougher than now.

As wages have stagnated and unemployment doubled during the recession, the cost of housing, food, health care and other basic needs has continued to grow, squeezing families, said Diana Pearce, author of the report on the self-sufficiency standard for Washington state, which was released last week.

East King County, where Nieves lives to be close to college and job opportunities, has the highest self-sufficiency standard in the state, requiring $65,690 for a family with one parent, one preschooler and one school-age child, Pearce's study found. That's a 14 percent increase from two years ago.

But Western Washington is not the only part of the state seeing big jumps in the cost to meet the needs of a small family. The same size family living in Southwest Washington's Wahkiakum County, which has the lowest self-sufficiency standard in the state, saw its expenses increase by 13 percent during the past two years, to $32,997.

The report measures how much a family needs for housing, food, child care, health care, transportation, taxes and other basic necessities without public assistance or help from family and friends.

Nieves said she couldn't meet her basic needs without extra help. She gets some of the family's food from a food bank, and rents her apartment from the YWCA's affordable-housing program, which lets her pay about half the going rate for a small, two-bedroom home. Extras like a computer for homework and finding translator jobs come from friends and family.

Child support from Ruben's father is minimal and inconsistent, she said.

She emphasized that just getting by does not include some expenses many families who live in her new, economically diverse development consider essential.

"I want to give my son things. I want to be able to let him take karate or take him on a vacation," Nieves said.

Pearce said the cost increases for basic needs are not due to inflation. Apartment and house rental prices have been rising as rental demand has gone up, she said.

"This isn't about people making bad choices or not budgeting well," Pearce said. As wages go down, and food, health care and housing costs go up, regular people are getting squeezed.

Pearce expressed concern that most of the government programs to help families survive — like food stamps and basic health — are available only to people with the lowest income. Middle-class people hit by unemployment or unexpected expenses don't have anywhere to turn, she said.

Kim Stohler, a PTA mom in Bellevue, said she's seen the impact of the economy on the cost of family life during her volunteer work at her kids' schools.

For those who don't qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the cost of buying lunch at school has gone up at least a dollar over the past few years, Stohler said. Parents are also being asked to help cover a big increase in school-supplies costs this year.

Pearce said the problem involves both wages and expenses. The program she directs — the Center for Women's Welfare at the UW School of Social Work — has been calculating a self-sufficiency standard for each of Washington's 39 counties every two years for the past 14.

Each county is given a figure equal to the amount of hourly wages a parent would need to earn for their family to be self-sufficient. The numbers range from more than $27 for a single parent of two kids in the Seattle area to nearly $18 for a single parent of two kids in Yakima.

According to the self-sufficiency standard, only adults living alone can afford to get by on minimum wage, and only in some counties.

The center also offers a calculator that looks at the issue in reverse and is designed to help people figure out if they will be able to survive on the hourly wage they have been offered at a prospective job.

The self-sufficiency calculator also helps people figure out if they are eligible for government help and links them to those services.

Other cost-of-living calculators exist online, but few are updated regularly to reflect actual current costs

Nieves said that five or six years ago, she was doing all right financially but now she and Ruben are barely making ends meet. All her expenses from gas prices to rent have gone up dramatically, and translator jobs are harder to come by.

And five years ago she didn't have a nearly 6-foot-tall, 13-year-old son.

"His stomach goes all the way down to his toes," she said. "For me, every penny counts."

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