When the Census Bureau released data showing that the poverty rate had declined to 8.8 percent countywide — its lowest in more than a decade — it seemed like positive news. While it’s true that a lower poverty rate reflects a recovering economy and a decrease in unemployment, it doesn’t tell the full story of need.
Today, for a family of four, being in poverty means earning a pre-tax annual income of $24,600 or less. This official measure of poverty is the same whether you live here in Clark County or anywhere else in the 48 contiguous states.
When determining its American Community Survey estimates for income, poverty and many other demographics, the Census considers people staying in homeless shelters and similar facilities. However, the Census does not sample from domestic violence shelters, soup kitchens or “dangerous encampments.”
The poverty level, otherwise called the poverty threshold or poverty line, was developed after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964. The figure is updated every January using the Consumer Price Index, so it essentially moves with inflation. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the poverty line for a family of four was $20,000 in January 2006, which had the same buying power as $24,492 in January 2017 — $108 less than today’s poverty line.
Andy Silver, the executive director of the Council for the Homeless, said the poverty rate is a bad indicator of how many people are poor or struggling, and one reason is that the inflation metric doesn’t reflect the rising costs of living in modern society. Not being able to afford internet access or a cellphone wasn’t an issue in the 1960s, but it is today, he said. So, how does that translate to the number of people struggling to live by today’s standards?
“The poverty level’s not going to answer that question for us,” Silver said.
His nonprofit serves people who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness. Despite an improving economy, demand for assistance hasn’t slowed down, Silver said. People continue calling the Housing Hotline, seeking a place to stay inside or help coming up with rent. During the last census of homeless people, the annual Point in Time count conducted every January, homelessness had risen 8 percent from the year prior.
The poverty level is considered the minimum level of resources required to meet basic needs. In recent years the gap between the federal poverty line and local median incomes has widened. Today, about $45,000 separates a family in poverty from those with a typical income. In 2006, that gap was about $35,000.
While many of the Council for the Homeless’s programs don’t have specific income cutoffs to determine eligibility, most people they work with tend to earn less than 30 percent of the area median income, which is about on par with the poverty level. As incomes go up, those people may also struggle but perhaps not as much or in a different way. Maybe someone earning closer to median income is struggling to exit the rental market and buy a house because home prices are rising.
Still, he said, people earning well above the poverty level are living out of their cars. Silver ties that to increasing rents. If incomes don’t keep pace with housing costs, that means people at higher incomes struggle whether they live here or in another hot housing market.
“If we were in Palo Alto, (Calif.) you’d see people at 80 percent of AMI (area median income) who are homeless,” he said.
The going rate for a one-bedroom apartment in Clark County was $625 in 2006, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Today, it’s $1,053. What’s more, the agency recently released its 2018 figures and bumped that number up to $1,132. (Vancouver Housing Authority uses fair market rents to determine payment standards on Housing Choice Vouchers, otherwise known as Section 8, that bring down the cost of rent for low-income households.)
Shifting poverty line
Many measurements of poor abound.
In 2014, the University of Washington said that Clark County’s “self-sufficiency standard” — that is, the minimum amount of income needed to meet basic needs — was about twice the federal poverty line. There’s also the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator that says two working adults with two children each need to earn $16.36 an hour to get by.
The number of people receiving government assistance adds more nuance to the picture of poor. Local people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families has declined by nearly half since a decade ago. To qualify, households have to earn 67 percent of the federal poverty line or less. Basically, once people get employment, they no longer qualify for that financial assistance.
It’s not the same for food stamps, though. Locally, there are more than 85,000 people in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as Basic Food in Washington. That’s more people than were using it prior to the recession.
Income eligibility for food assistance is higher, so more people qualify for it and use it. Those families may earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line — about $49,200 for a family of four — but they still need help meeting basic needs like buying groceries.
T Simmons, spokeswoman for the state Department of Social and Health Services, said the number of people at this income bracket is a better indicator of who’s struggling. In Clark County, that’s about one in four people experiencing economic hardship.
“Labels like ‘poor’ and ‘low income’ are often used interchangeably and are somewhat subjective,” she said in an email. “A strong body of evidence suggests that any child, family or community struggling to have their basic needs met is at risk of poor outcomes, and that the more low income a child, family or community is, the worse the outcome.”
Typically, she said, “deep poverty” is defined as somebody living on about half of the federal poverty line, whereas “poor” is someone earning up to the poverty line, and “near poor” would be someone earning more than that, up to 200 percent of poverty.
This standard is also used by several programs to determine participants’ eligibility, such as the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program and the Community Housing Resource Center’s Families to Self-Sufficiency Financial Education and Counseling Program.
To make matters more confusing, other social service agencies use area median income to determine eligibility. Different U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development programs or subsidized housing complexes, for instance, will accept applicants based on income levels. According to the agency, a household earning 80 percent of the area median income is “low income” while those earning 50 percent are “very low income” and those earning 30 percent are “extremely low income.”
There’s no one definition of what it is to be poor or low income. People can be impoverished not just financially, but socially and emotionally, too, Simmons said.
“As the economy improves, the poverty rate will continue to decline,” she said. “How much of a decline depends on the quality of jobs available and the wages they pay, as well as access to affordable child care, housing, transportation, etc.”