Self-Sufficiency Wage 

Another method to assess whether an income is "good" or "enough," aside from looking at poverty rates (see Poverty), is to model a self-sufficiency standard: can a person at this income level cover basic needs in their region without assistance? There are different models for self-sufficiency that go beyond income and consider the local cost of living. These models differ in how “basic needs” are defined, what source is used for estimating the costs for those needs, and the overall structure of the model.
Two widely used models for self-sufficiency are the Living Wage Calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)[1] and the Self-Sufficiency Standard from the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington (UW).[2] Both models include a set of costs: housing, healthcare, childcare, food, transportation, taxes, and other expenses. Some key differences are that UW includes emergency savings, while MIT allocates money for recreation and entertainment. The models also differ in the way they estimate other expenses like clothing, cleaning supplies, and the internet: MIT enumerates these costs to estimate them, while UW adds 10% on the top of their estimate to account for these and other miscellaneous but necessary expenses.
MIT publishes self-sufficiency estimates for families with zero, one, two, or three children and one wage-earning adult, two adults with one earner, or two earning adults. UW publishes self-sufficiency thresholds for a wider variety of family structures that considers the ages of children. The UW standard was selected for this report because it classifies families based on a more precise view of family structure. This also aligns with the County of San Diego[3] and the San Diego Workforce Partnership, who base their self-sufficiency estimates on the UW model. For 2021, UW estimated the self-sufficiency wage for a single adult in San Diego County was $18.43 per hour, or $38,919 per year and MIT estimated it as $22.74 per hour, or $47,304 per year.[4]
Even though self-sufficiency wage can give a better view of income, it does have some limitations to consider. First, this measure takes a countywide average of costs, which obscures that some parts of the county have drastic cost differences. For example, residents living in downtown likely pay more for housing, whereas residents in the unincorporated areas of the county likely pay more for transportation. Second, the housing estimates come from ACS, which come out late in the year following the year they describe. This means that the self-sufficiency standard for 2021 is relying on 2020 data—the same year that the COVID-19 pandemic briefly lowered rental costs in San Diego County, and then rent quickly increased to meet and far exceed pre-pandemic prices.[5] This resulted in the self-sufficiency wage decreasing for year 2021. Third, the number of self-sufficient households by demographics, such as race, gender, and disability, is difficult to measure because households can contain multiple people, often with varying characteristics. Future analyses can consider methods for examining additional demographic differences by households, and self-sufficiency by the person (e.g., the number of people in households making a self-sufficient wage) rather than by households to make it easier to compare to the poverty indicator.
Households were classified as either making or not making a self-sufficient wage using ACS data in concert with the UW self-sufficiency standard. First, households were classified to match the UW standard, calculating how many adults (ages 18 or older), infants (ages 0-2), preschool-age children (ages 3-5), school-age children (ages 6-12), and teenagers (ages 13-17) lived in each household.[6] Then, the monthly income for each head of household was compared to the monthly self-sufficiency wage UW assigns for the same household structure. This determines whether each household earns a self-sufficient wage or does not. Households with missing household income were excluded.
Figure 1 presents the percent of San Diego County households in 2021 that had or did not have a self-sufficient wage. Most households (about 64%) were making a self-sufficient wage, but 36% of households may have been struggling to meet their basic needs. Figure 2 maps the percent of households who made a self-sufficient wage in 2021 by Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs).  The areas bordering Mexico (including Imperial Beach) and immediately north (including Chula Vista and National City), and East Escondido had the lowest percent of households making a self-sufficient wage.
To better understand how self-sufficiency wage varies throughout the county, the County of San Diego’s Community Health Statistics Unit has created a self-sufficiency standard dashboard[7] that measures how much income is needed for a household of a certain composition to adequately meet their basic needs without public or private assistance by subregional area. This tool allows people to learn more about the variability in the minimum wage required for self-sufficiency based on the average amount spent on basic necessities in San Diego County. The self-sufficiency income in this dashboard was calculated by adapting the UW self-sufficiency standard methodology using available data sources at the Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) regional and subregional area (SRA) levels. The differences in measures used and adaptations made for use at the regional and subregional area levels can be found in the self-sufficiency standard briefs accompanying the dashboard.[8] This report is a complement to the Community Health Statistics Unit’s Self Sufficiency Dashboard. 

Data Information
Data Source: 2021 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates from IPUMS USA.
  1. Glasmeier, A. K. (2023). Living Wage Calculator—Living Wage Calculation for San Diego County, California. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved April 6, 2023, from
  2. University of Washington Center for Women’s Welfare. (n.d.). Self-Sufficiency Standard Calculator. Self Sufficiency Standard. Retrieved April 6, 2023, from
  3. Public Health Services Community Health Statistics Unit. (2022). San Diego County Self Sufficiency Standard Brief Single Parent Household with Two Children, 2021. County of San Diego.
  4. Calculator. (n.d.). Self Sufficiency Standard. Retrieved June 23, 2023, from
  5. Molnar, P. (2020, May). Forecast: San Diego rents to drop by 10%—The San Diego Union-Tribune.; Molnar, P. (2023, June 9). San Diego rent hits record high. There’s at least one area where rent increases have almost stopped. San Diego Union-Tribune.
  6. Manzer, L. & Kucklick, A. (2022). Technical Brief The Self-Sufficiency Standard 2022 Update. Center for Women’s Welfare. University of Washington School of Social Work. SSS2022_TechnicalBrief_03032022.pdf (
  7. San Diego County Self-Sufficiency Standard Dashboard. (n.d.). Tableau Software. Retrieved June 12, 2023, from
  8. Health & Human Services, San Diego County. (n.d.). Health Equity. Retrieved April 29, 2023, from
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Updated February 7, 2024