By any measure, too many of Oregon’s kids are living in poverty.
The official definition of poverty is in the U.S. is outdated and inadequate. The U.S. Census Bureau developed the the official U.S. definition of poverty in the 1960s using the cost of food and the proportion of income typically spent on food. While it has been adjusted for inflation annually, the measure has failed to keep up with the pressures families face.
For example, a single parent raising two kids on $370 per week (about $1,600 a month or $19,240 per year) would not be considered “in poverty” according to the the official definition. In order to meet that threshold, a family of three would have to have earned less than $19,073 in 2014 to be considered living in poverty.
Not only is this bar low, it does not take into account variations in cost based on geography. That means that the official definition of poverty is the same whether you live in Portland, Oregon, where rent continues to skyrocket, or Fort Wayne, Indiana, where rent is 28 percent below the national average.
Some communities in Oregon face extremely high rates of poverty among children. For example, while about 17 percent of non-Hispanic white children were in poverty in 2014, the child poverty rate was about 33 percent for Hispanic children, about 44 percent for American Indian/Alaskan Native children, 46 percent for black children and 54 percent for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander children.
In total, 21.6 percent of children in Oregon were below the poverty line in 2014. That is more than one out of every five kids in our state.
There were about 860,000 kids living in Oregon in 2014. One out of five means that about 182,000 of them were living in poverty. That is enough to fill seven of our state’s most popular stadiums.
Since we know the official definition of poverty doesn’t correlate to what it takes to actually get by, it can be more helpful to measure how many families are living in or near poverty. Raising the threshold to a more meaningful level, 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold (or $37,700 for a family of three) more than doubles the number of Oregon’s children in families are struggling.
In total, there were about 390,000 kids in Oregon living in or near poverty in 2014 – enough to fill those same 7 stadiums and arenas in Oregon, plus the two largest stadiums on the west coast, and still have about 30,000 kids standing outside.
However, progress is being made.
First, in terms of measurement, the Census Bureau is developing a Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) that will better examine both the income and expense sides of a family’s circumstances.
Second, the SPM allows us to see the important progress being made in fighting poverty. The safety net is working. And working better in Oregon than many other places.
Using the SPM, and adjusting for the respondents’ tendency to under report income, researchers at the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have shown that the safety net cuts the child poverty rate roughly in half nationally. In Oregon, safety net programs reduce the rate of child poverty by nearly two-thirds.