RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The average family in the state must earn nearly $70,000 a year just to make ends meet, the North Carolina Budget & Tax Center says.

A new tool from the organization breaks down the Living Income Standard — the costs of housing, food, childcare, health care, transportation, taxes and other basics — in each of the state’s 100 counties.


“There’s a lot of conversation about what it takes to actually make ends meet these days, particularly with inflation running really hot,” said Patrick McHugh, an analyst with the Budget & Tax Center. “So we thought it was a good time to update this analysis.”

It shows vast differences between the most and least expensive counties — which are separated by more than $31,000 — and the costliest places tend to be in the Triangle.

The four most expensive counties for a family of four are all in central North Carolina: Orange ($84,120), Chatham ($82,120), Wake ($81,850) and Durham ($81,510).

At the other extreme, three of the five most inexpensive counties for a family of four are in the western mountains, including Alleghany ($52,950), Ashe ($55,180) and Yancey ($57,580).

Two years after the widespread job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, that creates something of a paradox: The places where those jobs have returned tend to be too expensive for people with lower incomes to live.

“A lot of working people are in really facing kind of a bind in the fact that where the jobs exist, where most of the job growth is happening, particularly in the recovery from COVID-19, places like Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte,” McHugh said. “Those places have recovered all the jobs that were lost, and then some, but that's also where it can be ruinously expensive to live, particularly if you're in a lower wage occupation.”

The opposite is true in those rural counties with lower costs but also fewer jobs.

“And so a lot of workers face the the bind of either living in a more affordable place where the jobs haven't recovered, or moving to where job opportunities exist, and facing enormous cost of living increases,” he said. “The recovery is happening in the places where it is most expensive to live.”

So, what could be some solutions?

McHugh says an obvious starting point is raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour — where it has been for more than a decade — to at least $15 an hour.

“It’s an insult that it has stayed where it is for as long as it has,” McHugh said.

He says new employers that receive state and local tax dollars to relocate in North Carolina should commit to paying “at least a living wage to the folks that they’re hiring for us to be making that investment in public dollars into those kinds of projects.”

And he is calling on the state to help with child care, saying that would ultimately help both employees and their employers.

“That’s one of the hugs costs that face a lot of working families, and particularly in this moment when you have so many employers howling that they can't find people to work. There’s still people out there who want to work, but simply can't afford childcare in order to be able to get to work,” he said. 

“So if we dramatically increase our … public investment in childcare in this state, that would help a lot of working families and help employers that are looking for people to work,” he added.