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Financial security's cost keeps rising, group's study says

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By Carol Morello
Monday, October 11, 2010

A family of four needs an income of $108,000 to be financially secure in Fairfax County, the most expensive area to live in the Washington region. An individual without kids or a car can get by on about $32,000 in the District, the cheapest jurisdiction for singles. And a single parent with one child has to pull in almost $62,000 to make it in Prince George's County

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Those are the conclusions of a detailed cost-of-living analysis by Wider Opportunities for Women, a District-based group that advocates for more job training and financial literacy programs.

In a report being released Monday, the organization calculates how much money is needed to attain what it calls "basic economic security," generally an amount that is three or four times greater than the federal poverty level.

The study, the first of several the group is conducting around the country, grew out of research in which people were asked what would make them feel financially safe.

Most of the people polled described security as having enough to eat, keep a roof over their heads, go to the doctor when they're sick and build up a rainy-day fund, said Joan Kuriansky, WOW's executive director.

The report tries to calculate how much money is needed for the Washington area's residents to reach that goal. It includes tables configured for individuals and families, with separate tables for those who have employer-provided health insurance and those who do not.

The tables include the costs of everything from child care to transportation to work-related expenses like professional clothing. They also include modest monthly savings for emergencies and retirement. But they do not set aside savings for college education or a down payment on a house.

Utilities include a land-line phone, but not a cellphone.

At least one car was considered a necessity in the suburbs, but it was assumed District residents would take public transportation, shaving $220 or more from monthly expenses.

Fairfax County was the most expensive in every category, followed by Montgomery County. The District cost the least for childless singles, but as soon as a child entered the picture, Prince George's County became the cheapest place to live.

In most instances, the biggest monthly expense for working couples with two or more offspring was child care, ahead of housing and taxes.

In WOW's analysis, single mothers are particularly squeezed. In most jurisdictions, the median income for working women who are raising children alone is well beneath WOW's economic security figure. In many of the tables, two working parents earning the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would each have to work one full-time and one part-time job to reach financial security.

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