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Washington: Mid-Columbia cost of living rising faster than state average
Tri-City Herald
Jacques Von Lunen

October 24, 2011
View the Original Article

The cost of living in Benton and Franklin counties has gone up faster than the state average in the past two years.

The price of housing was the biggest contributor here and statewide, along with health and child care, according to a study released Friday by a University of Washington research group.

Wages also have not kept pace with living expenses, said the study.

The report lists how much families in different parts of the state must earn to pay for housing, food, child care, health care, transportation, taxes and other basic needs.

It measures the cost of living more realistically than the Consumer Price Index does, in part, because it doesn't factor in prices for luxury items such as plane tickets or laptops, said Diana Pearce, the report's author.

She is the director of the Center for Women's Welfare at the UWs School of Social Work.

Inflation figures -- which are based on the CPI -- underrepresent the hardship many families face because many basic expenses have increased drastically, even as the recession has kept prices for big-ticket items fairly low, she said.

And rent prices, which particularly affect lower- to middle-income families, have not fallen along with home prices.

That's especially true in rural and suburban Benton County.

Ten years ago, the average housing cost for a family of four living outside of Kennewick and Richland was $685, according to the report.

That dropped to $580 in 2009, in the wake of the recession, but has risen sharply since -- to $754 this year.

It now is virtually the same as the average housing cost for a family of four in Kennewick and Richland, which is $776.

Franklin County saw a similar, albeit slightly less drastic pattern.

Housing a family of four cost $617 about 10 years ago. That dropped to $580 in 2009 and has climbed to $698 this year, said the report.

Health care and child care costs also increased greatly, statewide and in the Tri-Cities.

It all adds up to Benton and Franklin counties seeing at least 20 percent jumps in the cost of living in the past two years.

A family of two adults, one preschooler and one school-aged child needs to bring in about $47,000 to be self-sufficient in Richland or Kennewick this year. The same family needs about $46,000 in Franklin County.

Both numbers are about $10,000 higher than they were 10 years ago, said the report.

Most family wages have not increased by that much in the past decade.

"The startling thing is not just the cost increase, but the stagnant wages," said Pearce. "People's earnings are not keeping up with rising expenses."

Measured statewide, basic living costs have gone up 37 percent over 10 years. Wages rose by 21 percent in the same time.

Many are caught in the area between food stamp eligibility and a sustainable wage, she said.

"We don't have help (available) for those people," Pearce said. "We call that a policy gap."

Also of concern is that on a list of the 10 most common jobs in the state, only one -- registered nurse -- provides workers with a self-sufficient wage, she said.

The wage a single parent needs to support two children in Kennewick and Richland -- $19.23 an hour -- is now just 50 cents below that needed in Spokane, the report stated.

Walla Walla's cost of living rose as sharply as the Tri-Cities' in the past two years. And Skamania County saw the largest increase in the state.

The research group has created an online wage calculator, available at www.thecalculator.org.

It can help families figure out their budget. It's also used by counselors and in retraining programs to direct people toward jobs that will pay a self-sufficient wage.

The calculator is available in 10 languages.