Reconnect to Economic Opportunity: RTI U.S. Synthetic Household Population ™ Data


How many single adult households in North Carolina are “self-sufficient” and

what is the connection between self-sufficiency and education? 


As IEI has looked at how to increase economic opportunity for adults 25 and older in North Carolina, we’ve discovered that there is surprisingly little information available on a regular basis that can tell us how many households across our state earn enough money to make ends meet. And there is even less information about the role education levels play in their self-sufficiency. 

Determining “self-sufficiency” is much more complicated than the one-size-fits-all federal “poverty level.” Part of the problem is we need to know how much people make, where they live and what their household expenses are.  And, financial needs change by location, the number and age of household members, and over time, wage and costs of living fluctuations.

We partnered with RTI International to take a small bite out of this big problem. We asked them to bring out their big gun: their proprietary database that takes census data and then estimates all sorts of other useful information for all U.S. households. 

RTI ran an analysis that incorporated the United Way of North Carolina’s 2017 Self-Sufficiency Standard for single adult households in each county. In this instance, self-sufficiency is defined as the amount of income necessary to meet the basic needs of North Carolina families, without help from public subsidies or private/informal assistance. RTI used its database to compute how much money single adult households in each county were making, then compared it to the “self-sufficient income” for that particular county, to determine who landed above or below the benchmark. 

To address the question of the relationship between income, self-sufficiency and education,  we also asked them to look at educational attainment for these single adult households to determine what percent of those earning less than a self-sufficient wage had a high school degree or less—in each North Carolina county.

Here’s what we found out with their help:

  1. Too many single adult households make less than a self-sufficient wage. On average, one in seven households headed by a single adult couldn’t make ends meet in 2017. In some counties, this was almost one in four.
  2. Where these single adults live did not make them more or less likely to have adequate income for their basic needs. There is substantial geographical variability in the percentage of single adult households not meeting the income benchmark.
  3. The problem of single adult households making less than a self-sufficient wage is not a strictly “rural” or an “urban” problem.  The highest levels of single adults not earning enough to make ends meet are found in both rural and non-rural areas of the state.
  4. The cost of living itself does not appear to impact how many single adult households are above or below the self-sufficient benchmark of income. In other words, there is no clear relationship between each county’s cost of living (i.e. its absolute value) and the percentage of single adult households struggling to make ends meet. More expensive areas of the state are not more likely to have more single adults living below a living wage. And conversely, areas with lower costs of living did not have more single adult households earning a self-sufficient wage.

Single adult households are just one of 700 household types across North Carolina. In most, but not all cases, these adults have some of the greatest opportunity to meet the self-sufficiency benchmark of income. But if one in seven single adult households across the state aren’t successful in meeting their basic needs, we can only imagine how this number increases as children and other dependents are added to the household — potentially creating even more barriers to workforce training. While broader analysis is needed to fully understand the challenge of how many adult workers in every county and across the state are struggling to make ends meet, we know for certain that the solution lies in tackling this challenge together.

For more information contact Sarah Langer Hall at