Fact checked

Six figures is working-class income in 85% of America’s largest metros

six figure metros
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It wasn’t so long ago that a six-figure income was a testament to financial success.

Now, in many parts of the country, earning six figures barely qualifies as working class—and isn’t even enough to cover the basic needs of an average family.

So, how much do Americans have to make just to scrape by? And how does that threshold vary across the country?

To answer this question, Creditnews Research estimated how much the average family has to earn to afford the bare minimum—such as food, childcare, and housing—in America’s largest metros.

The study uses data provided by the Living Wage Institute, a non-profit run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which offers a much more realistic living cost benchmark than federal guidelines.

Key findings
  • In 85 of the top 100 most populous metros, the average family has to earn more than $100,000 to scrape by. By comparison, the nationwide income threshold is just under $75,000;
  • To reach the living income threshold, a family has to earn 42% more with one child and 79% more with two children compared to a household without children;
  • The most expensive areas to be working class are on the West Coast and Northeast; families in these areas have to make $140,000 or more just to cover basic living expenses;
  • The least expensive metros are in the South, but even then, an average family has to make between $87,000 and $97,000 to get by.

Six figures is no longer a nice-to-have but a must

Perhaps not surprisingly, costs associated with children are one of the main drivers of minimum income thresholds.

To reach the living income threshold, a family has to earn 42% more with one child and 79% more with two children compared to a household without children.

In some metros, the discrepancy is much higher.

Families with two children—the average family composition as of 2023—need an income of $100,000 or greater to cover basic needs in 85 of the 100 most populous metros.

In the remaining 15 metros, a household still needs to earn between $87,000 and $97,000 if they have two children.

By comparison, none of the metros in the study require a six-figure income to hit the working-class threshold for families without children.

According to the Census Bureau, the average U.S. household income is just under $75,000 a year.

That means a family of four can’t afford to live in any of the country’s most populous metro areas without compromising some of their basic needs.

The 10 most and least expensive metros to be working-class

By far, the most expensive areas to raise a family are the West Coast and Northeast. These just so happen to be some of the country’s most expensive housing and rental markets.

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: The northern California metro of San Jose is the most expensive area in the country for families. The annual living income for households with two children is $167,271. By comparison, the annual living income for a household with no children is $89,526.
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, CA: It comes as no surprise that San Francisco is the second-most expensive metro on the list. A family with two kids needs an annual living income of $164,827 to scrape by. That’s nearly double the annual living income without children ($85,024).
  • Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH: The Northeastern metro of Boston ranks third on the list with an annual cost of $159,868 for a household with two kids. Boston has seen a surge in housing costs in recent years, making it one of the country’s most expensive metros overall.
  • Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT: Keeping in the Northeast, the Connecticut metro of Bridgeport-Stanford requires a minimum of $158,925 to successfully raise two children. That’s more than double the annual living income of households with no children.
  • Urban Honolulu, HI: A top 10 ranking of most expensive metros usually isn't complete without Urban Honolulu, HI. The Hawaii metro has a minimum living income of $149,753 for families with two children and $75,764 with no children.
  • San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad, CA: San Diego is a highly desirable metropolis, which partly explains its high cost. For a family of four, an average annual living income of $144,744 is needed. With no kids, the living income drops to $79,684.
  • New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA: New York is one of the most expensive cities in the country, but the New York-Newark-New Jersey metro brings living costs slightly down. Here, a family of four needs $142,516 per year to get by, compared to $76,965 for families with no children.
  • Seattle, WA: Seattle is one of the country's most expensive metros, especially for families. For a family of four, an average annual living income of $141,875 is needed. That's nearly 83% higher than a household with no children.
  • Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA: Situated about 60 miles from Los Angeles, the Oxnard-Thousand Oaks metro has a high cost of living for families with children. A household of four needs $140,351 per year to scrape by.
  • Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO: Rounding out the top 10, Denver is the only metro not on the West Coast or East Coast. Still, a population surge has made the Colorado metro one of the most expensive places to live. The minimum living income for households with two children is $140,241.

On the flip side, the least expensive places to reach a living income are mainly clustered in the South.

McAllen, TX, is the only metro where a household with two kids can get by on less than $90,000 annually.

In El Paso, TX, a family of four needs an annual living income of $90,239. El Paso, TX, Jackson, MS, Little Rock, AR, Lakeland, FL, and Augusta-Richmond County, GA-SC, all have minimum income thresholds in the mid-$90,000s.

What is a living income?

Economists and policymakers have always struggled to define what a "living income" means.

Government agencies provide different guidelines, many of which are based on outdated or incomplete measures, such as the Consumer Price Index or federal minimum wage levels.

Others benchmark living incomes against poverty wage estimates from the Department of Health and Human Services.

To provide a more comprehensive measure, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology introduced the Living Wage Institute—a non-profit data company.

Its methodology relies on the two foundational tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to identify eight components that offer a minimum standard of living without reliance on public assistance.

These components are childcare, civic engagement, food, healthcare, housing, internet and mobile, transportation, and other necessities.

The institute then calculates the annual costs of these eight spending components based on family composition to determine a living income in each geographical area.

Methodology
Sources
  1. Living Wage Institute
  2. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  3. Department of Labor Statistics Women’s Bureau: National Database of Childcare Prices