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Where Working Families With a Child Have the Best Shot at a Livable Wage

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Making ends meet can be difficult. But with a federal minimum wage of $7.25, it may be an impossible task for some — especially those with children to support.

To figure out where families are making it work, analysts used the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Living Wage Calculator and jobs data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to find the states with the highest percentage of workers in occupations that pay, on average, above a living wage.

Since the average family size in the U.S. is 3.15, researchers focused on families with two working parents and one child. However, they also looked at single parents with one child and adults living alone to provide some context.

Key findings

  • 57.2% of working Americans are in occupations where the median pay is greater than the living wage for families with two working adults and a child. This percentage jumps to 65.3% for one adult living alone, but plummets to 21.7% for one adult with a child.
  • The District of Columbia offers the best chance for two working adults with a child to earn a livable wage. In D.C., 75.4% of workers are in occupations that pay more, on average, than the local livable wage of $20.69 per working adult. North Dakota (71.0%) and Alaska (70.9%) are second and third, respectively.
  • In four states, less than 50% of workers are in living wage occupations suitable for two working adults and a child. In California, 46.9% of workers are in professions that pay more than the local livable wage of $21.76 per working adult — worst across the U.S. Arkansas (47.6%), Hawaii (48.4%) and Louisiana (49.7%) join California as the others below 50%.
  • Even in the most uncomplicated household structures — one adult living alone — between 20.1% and 49.1% of people aren’t in occupations where most workers make above the living wage, depending on the state. In North Dakota, 79.9% of people work in professions that pay more than the livable wage of $13.08 for single adults, versus 50.9% in Hawaii at a livable wage of $19.43.

States where the most people work in living wage occupations

Analysts found that 57.2% of workers across the U.S. are in occupations where the median pay exceeds the living wage for families with two working adults and a child.

The livable wage figures come from the MIT Living Wage Calculator, which focuses on minimum standards of living.

Top 3 states with the highest percentage of workers in occupations that pay above a living wage
Rank State Median hourly wage Livable wage* Number of jobs in occupations where median wage is above livable wage Total jobs % of workers in occupations that pay above livable wage
1 District of Columbia $38.29 $20.69 518,310 687,160 75.4%
2 North Dakota $21.26 $15.22 283,940 400,040 71.0%
3 Alaska $24.45 $16.34 210,120 296,300 70.9%
Note: Livable wage is per working adult for families with two working adults and one child.

D.C. offers the best chance for two working adults who have a child to earn a livable wage, according to the LendingTree study’s findings.

The median hourly wage there is $38.29 — more than $12 higher than next-ranked Massachusetts ($25.75). Although the minimum wage in D.C. is $15.20 — more than double that of the federal minimum wage — it’s still below what MIT estimates to be a livable wage (for two working adults with a child) in D.C. per working adult, $20.69.

Overall, 75.4% of D.C. workers are in occupations with a median wage above the livable wage. The fields with the highest median hourly pay in D.C., according to the BLS data, are:

  • Obstetricians and gynecologists: $95.57 an hour
  • Public relations and fundraising managers: $88.41 an hour
  • Lawyers: $82.12 an hour

North Dakota comes in second, with 71.0% of workers in occupations that offer a median wage above the liveable wage ($15.22 per working adult) for families with two working adults and a child. While that’s among the lowest livable wages in the U.S., median hourly wages here are $21.26. The minimum wage in North Dakota (unlike in D.C.) is the same as the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour; it’s been at that rate since July 2009, when the federal minimum wage was last increased.

Alaska takes third, with 70.9% of workers in occupations with a median wage above the livable wage; no other states have more than 70% of this segment making the cut. The median hourly wage in Alaska is $​​24.45, well above the state’s livable wage ($16.34 per working adult) and more than double the state minimum wage of $10.34 an hour. Unlike in North Dakota, the minimum wage in Alaska has slowly but steadily increased since 2015, when it sat at $8.75 an hour.

States where the least people work in living wage occupations

At the opposite end of the spectrum, California claims the title of the place with the smallest proportion of people who work in living wage occupations. It’s one of four states where less than 50% of people work in professions that pay above the living wage.

States where less than 50% of workers are in occupations that pay above a living wage
Rank State Median hourly wage Livable wage* Number of jobs in occupations where median wage is above livable wage Total jobs % of workers in occupations that pay above livable wage
1 California $22.74 $21.76 7,701,760 16,430,660 46.9%
2 Arkansas $16.51 $15.54 561,060 1,177,860 47.6%
3 Hawaii $22.44 $20.85 277,960 574,010 48.4%
4 Louisiana $17.53 $16.21 894,990 1,801,290 49.7%
Note: Livable wage is per working adult for families with two working adults and one child.

In the Golden State, 46.9% of workers are in occupations that pay more than the living wage ($21.76 per working adult). For context, that’s a higher living wage than any other U.S. state. The highest-paying hourly occupations there are:

  • Judges, magistrate judges and magistrates: $99.24 an hour
  • Orthodontists: $99.03 an hour
  • General internal medicine physicians: $97.83 an hour

That being said, only about a third of state residents have a bachelor’s degree, which is often necessary (at a minimum) for many high-paying jobs. Along with an abundance of low-paying jobs, it isn’t surprising that earning enough to make ends meet is difficult for many families with two working adults and a child in California.

Second to last on the list is Arkansas, where 47.6% of two-working-parent households are in occupations where the median pay exceeds the state’s livable wage. At nearly 1.2 million, the state has a significantly smaller pool of total jobs than California (more than 16.4 million). Arkansas also has a lower minimum wage ($11 an hour) than California ($14 an hour for employers with 26 or more employees, or $13 for smaller employers).

On the surface, Arkansas having a higher proportion of workers in occupations that pay above the living wage than California may be somewhat surprising. But as you drill down, you’ll see certain fields in California with massive job totals and poor median hourly wages:

  • 108,860 fast-food cooks have median hourly wages of $13.79
  • 200,130 farmworkers and laborers (crop, nursery and greenhouse) have median hourly wages of $13.84
  • 384,890 fast-food and counter workers have median hourly wages of $13.98
  • 597,500 home health and personal care aides have median hourly wages of $14.05

That alone shows nearly 1.3 million jobs across just four occupations in California offering median hourly wages of $14.05 or less, so California’s standing compared to Arkansas’ starts to make more sense.

Next comes Hawaii, with 48.4% of this population working in occupations where the median pay is higher than the livable wage. This is less surprising, as the main source of income for the state comes from the visitor sector (including service, retail and transportation) — jobs that can pay low wages.

Rounding out the bottom four is Louisiana, where 49.7% of residents in two-working-parent households work in occupations where the pay is more than the living wage. Like North Dakota, the state’s minimum wage is the same as the federal minimum wage — however, Louisiana has a comparatively higher living wage ($16.21 versus $15.22), which could contribute to the lower proportion of jobs surpassing the living wage.

Full rankings: Livable wages for 2 working adults with a kid

How the livable wage equation changes for single adults

Among single adults living alone, 65.3% are in occupations where the median pay is greater than the living wage. (Remember, that’s compared to 57.2% among families with two working adults and a child.) But in those households of single adults living alone, depending on the location, between 20.1% and 49.1% of people still aren’t in occupations where workers make above the living wage.

Switching to this metric, D.C. no longer sits at the top of the list (it’s now fifth). There, the livable wage is $20.12 for single adults (reminder, the median hourly wage is $38.29). This equates to 76.4% of D.C. workers in occupations that pay above a living wage.

Ohio — which didn’t make the top 10 among households with two working adults raising a child — takes the third spot this time around with a living wage of $13.16 for single adults, compared with a median hourly wage of $19.37. In total, 76.7% of those workers are in occupations that pay above the living wage.

How the livable wage equation changes for 1 working adult with a kid

Among single parents, just 21.7% are in occupations where the median pay is greater than the living wage. Depending on the location, between 13.1% and 50.2% of this population are in professions where most workers earn above the living wage.

Interestingly, California, which landed the bottom spot for the two-working-parent population, doesn’t make the bottom 10 for this list. Still, it’s 11th from bottom, and just 17.6% of single parents there are in occupations where most make below the living wage ($40.34).

4 tips for raising your hourly rate or salary

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to getting a pay raise. And while the MIT Living Wage Calculator is a useful benchmark, it only looks at the minimum standard of living, so the figures above won’t reflect the needs of people with lifestyles above the minimum. That aside, asking for a raise during a pandemic can be difficult. People may also be afraid to rock the boat, even if they’re having financial trouble meeting their needs — so it’s important to have a plan.

  • Assess your financial situation. Track how much money is coming in and going out of your household every month. That way, you’ll have a sense of how much more income you’ll need. It can also show you where you might be able to cut back on spending, if possible. Talking to a nonprofit credit counselor about debt consolidation could also help you make sense of your situation.
  • Look at other jobs around you. “Looking at what openings are out there can help you determine what your next move would be,” says Matt Schulz, LendingTree’s chief credit analyst. “If you find a great opportunity with a significant bump in pay, don’t be afraid to apply. If not, what you’ve discovered in your search can help frame the negotiations with your current employer when it comes to how much of a raise to ask for.”
  • Practice the raise conversation. Working with a friend or other trusted individual to rehearse the points you want to cover — like how you’ve helped the company or excelled at your job — can help you streamline your argument and feel more confident. Online resources can also help you learn what points to emphasize and how to respond to potential pushback.
  • Have a Plan A, B, C, D and E. “Asking your boss for more money takes guts,” Schulz says. “It is scary, in large part, because it might not work. There are also times when it might not make sense to ask at all and your better move would be to apply for a new job elsewhere. Thinking through what you should do in different scenarios may be scary, but it can be hugely helpful if things go wrong.”

Methodology

Researchers combined 2020 data from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator and 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics program to estimate the percentage of workers in occupations that pay, on average, more than a livable wage.

Specifically, analysts found the hourly wage needed to support particular household structures (one working adult living alone, one working adult with a child and two working adults with a child) and summed all the jobs where the median hourly wage was greater than that figure.

 

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