Non-Profit Jargon

What does self-sufficiency mean?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, self-sufficiency is defined as “able to maintain oneself without outside aid.”  By this strict definition, nearly everyone – in poverty, in middle-class and in upper-class – is not self-sufficient. We all benefit from such things as car loans, mortgages, credit cards, tax credits and child care assistance. Without some of these things we would not be able to purchase cars or homes – imagine paying for a $400,000 house in cash with no mortgage!

On the extreme end, some would define self-sufficiency as doing everything yourself. You make your own tools, grow your own food, make your own electricity – everything that you would buy in a store or services you would pay for would go against being fully self-sufficient.

According to The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Colorado 2015, published by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, the self-sufficiency standard is the measure which “describes how much income families of various sizes and compositions need to make ends meet without public or private assistance.” The report reveals that for most workers throughout Colorado, whose wages are above the official Federal Poverty Level, are still not making enough to meet their family’s needs.  In 2015, a family of four (two adults, two children) would need to make an hourly wage of $15.47 per adult for an annual income of $65,350 to be economically self-sufficient in El Paso County.

Considering that many of those who seek assistance at Tri-Lakes Cares are working for a minimum wage of $8.31 per hour (Colorado is higher than the federal minimum wage), you can see how it is difficult to make ends meet. And, financial difficulties can multiply if work hours are reduced, a position is eliminated or unexpected medical costs are incurred.

Yet, some of those clients view themselves as self-sufficient. Consider the man who comes in on a weekly basis to visit Help Yourself – where he can pick-up bread, fresh produce, dairy products and other perishable items which are donated by area businesses to supplement what he can purchase on his fixed income. This may be the only assistance that he seeks. Or, consider the senior citizen who received help to repair the gutter work on her trailer where she continues to live independently and asking for no further help. Yet, these individuals may be receiving food stamp benefits, disability payments, and income tax credits meaning that by the official definition they are not self-sufficient.

Tri-Lakes Cares works with all of our clients to help them move out of poverty and towards greater self-sufficiency as defined by the individual and their unique situation. We offer them opportunities which might improve their chances of getting out of the cycle of poverty. One such possibility is our “Getting Ahead” class. This 12-week course, which is part of the aha! Process, Inc. family of resources and developed by the creators of Bridges out of Poverty, helps individuals understand their own situation and encourages them to review their resources and capabilities on how to move out of poverty and towards increased self-sufficiency. Other possibilities offered include budget counseling and assistance with post-secondary education costs (everything from helping to pay for books to providing tuition assistance for work-related licensures).

Self-sufficiency means different things to different people depending on their financial circumstances, their philosophy on life and their personal perceptions. We cannot impose our own definition for self-sufficiency on others. We can only understand it when we hear the other’s story – walking a mile in their shoes – and only then can we move together towards an understanding of self-sufficiency for each individual.



You can read and study the full self-sufficiency standard report here:


The Numbers Game – What does it mean?

A frequent question we get at Tri-Lakes Cares is how people qualify for services such as food and rental assistance. The answer is if they make 185% of the federal poverty guideline and reside within our service territory, they are eligible for assistance. But what does 185% of the federal poverty guideline mean?

It can be complicated. Let’s see if we can make it easier.

Every year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issues “poverty guidelines” based on household size (1 to 8). These guidelines are updated annually from the “latest published weighted average poverty thresholds using the Consumer Price Index for all Urban Consumers.” The poverty thresholds are calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Consumer Price Index, a statistic produced by the Department of Labor.

The poverty guidelines, or percentage multiples of them (125%, 150%, 175% or 185%), are used as a method to determine eligibility for federal government assistance programs. In addition, state and other local governments may use some part of the poverty guidelines and percentages to determine eligibility for state or local assistance programs.

Are you confused yet? It took me visits to four different government websites and one research institute website to just glean the information above. You can see links at the end of this post.

So, how does this work? Let’s take the example of the Smiths, a family of four residing in El Paso County, Colorado, trying to qualify for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, commonly known as “food stamps.” According to the most recent poverty guidelines published on January 25, 2016, the Smiths are considered to be living in poverty if their annual income is $24,300 or less.

Per the El Paso County Department of Human Services, to be eligible for SNAP, the Smiths would have to earn a monthly gross income of $2,628 (which is 130% of poverty) and a monthly net income of $2,012 (100% of poverty) or less. (Per the county, gross income means a household’s total, non-excluded income, before any deductions have been made. Net income means gross income minus allowable deductions.) The annual gross income for the Smiths is $31,526 which is $27,303 dramatically below the $58,829 annual gross income needed to be considered self-sufficient. (The self-sufficiency figure is from the 2015 Colorado Self-Sufficiency Standard report prepared for and issued by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. **) Based on this calculation, they would qualify for benefits. However, benefits aren’t always guaranteed just on this metric alone as other factors may come into play as well. But that is a whole different story. Back to Tri-Lakes Cares.

Tri-Lakes Cares uses the poverty guidelines in a similar manner. In order to qualify for financial assistance (i.e. anything that would require a check for things such as rental assistance, secondary education tuition or help with medical bills), a client would qualify if their income is 185% of the poverty guidelines. For the Smiths, the annual poverty guideline is an annual income of $24,300. 185% of this amount is $44,955, meaning their income needs to be equal or less than this amount in order to qualify for financial assistance at Tri-Lakes Cares. As in the example above, this income falls almost $14,000 short of the $58,829 self-sufficiency standard. And, considering that the median income for El Paso County is $73,000 and the Tri-Lakes area even higher, the Smiths would struggle to make ends meet.

For the various food programs at Tri-Lakes Cares other percentages are used, some which are set by the federal government such as the TEFAP (Commodities) program or internally by Tri-Lakes Cares. Because senior citizens are such a vulnerable population, living on fixed incomes and with little opportunity to increase their income, the percentage may be calculated at a higher rate. Children who receive food through the “Snack Pack” program are already qualified by receiving free or reduced price breakfast and lunches at school at income levels set by federal guidelines. And, there are always special and limited-time circumstances which may account for “beyond the basic rules” of receiving assistance.

Rest assured that the Paula and Michael, our Case Managers, work closely with all of the individuals and families to determine eligibility and to make sure all of our resources and donor-dollars are used in the most efficient manner.

** Watch for a future blog posting about self-sufficiency – what it is, how it is calculated and what the salary requirements are to meet it.


Reference links:

https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services)

http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview/measure.html (U.S Census Bureau)

http://www.irp.wisc.edu/faqs/faq1.htm (Institute for Research on Poverty)

http://www.colorado.gov (State of Colorado)

http://dhs.elpasoco.com/Pages/FoodAssistance.aspx (El Paso County, Department of Human Services)