Children & Seniors Living in Poverty: New estimates out for both population groups in Spokane County

by Scott Richter and Dr. Patrick Jones

Ever since President Lynden B. Johnson announced an “unconditional war on poverty” with the goal “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it”, America began a new, albeit rocky, path to end poverty.

In the measure most widely used, poverty is determined by the U.S. Census Bureau and its Official Poverty Measure (OPM) , which is “a set of money income thresholds that vary by family size and composition to determine who is in poverty.” The OPM is not adjusted nor vary for different locations across the U.S.

The money income thresholds, or poverty thresholds, are developed each year based on the current OPM. The latest available are for 2019 and are used to determine poverty status and as a basis to qualify for various forms of assistance for the current year of 2020. During 2019, for a household of two adults and two children, the poverty threshold was $25,926 for a combined total household income.

Each member of a two adult / two children household with a combined total household income lower than $25,926 were considered to be living in poverty. 

There are more than a handful of other ways poverty is measured. In fact, there are seven under Poverty subsection in the Economic Vitality category on Spokane Trends. Some are more official than others, but they all shed a unique light on poverty in Spokane County.

The first three are official based on the OPM, and perhaps include the most commonly known and referred to poverty measurements: total, youth (ages 0-17), and seniors (ages 65+) living in poverty.

The fourth is Asset Limited, Income Restrained, Employed (ALICE) Household Survival Budget, developed by United Way. This measure considers the cost of household necessities (day care, transportation, etc.) and unlike the OPM or poverty measures, ALICE factors in cost-of-living differences across the U.S.   

The final three are more indirect poverty measurements: Enrollment of K-12 students in the USDA Free & Reduced-Price Lunch Program, Participation in the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Population (ages 0-17) Receiving TANF Benefits indirectly measure poverty status. 

While each measures is important, this article focuses on two: the estimated total and share of 1) youth, ages 0-17, and 2) seniors, ages 65+, living in poverty.

At first glance, the Spokane County 2019 estimated total number and share of the youth population living in poverty both decreased over the course of this series from 2005 to 2019. The total estimated number of seniors increased, while the share decreased. Both the estimated total number and share of the overall population living in poverty peaked during 2013 but has remained relatively flat. to the state and U.S., the estimated share of youth living in poverty has consistently been lower than the nation and since 2012 has been slightly higher than the state.

More specifically for Spokane County, the estimated total youth population living in poverty decreased from 19,215 during 2005 to 14,018 during 2019. The estimated share of youth decreased from 19.0% to 12.5%. In the U.S., the rate decreased from 18.5% to 16.8%, and the state from 15.1% to 12.0%.

The estimated total senior population of Spokane County living in poverty increased from 4,279 during 2005 to 6,117 during 2019. Yet, the estimated share of seniors decreased from 8.4% to 7.2%. This combination likely means Spokane County has had an influx of seniors and / or Spokane’s Baby Boomers are simply aging. Either way, the share of seniors comprising the Spokane County population has increased over the last three decades, and is undoubtedly behind the rise in the count The percentage decrease, while welcome, is not statistically significant.

Like the youth poverty series, the estimated share of seniors in poverty has been consistently below the U.S., but more often than not, above the state. As mentioned, from 2005 to 2019, Spokane County decreased from 8.4% to 7.2%, compared to the U.S. decreasing from 9.9% to 9.4%, and the state decreasing from 8.2% to 7.5%. Only the decline in the U.S. senior rate was statistically significant.

As the person who first floated the statement “the cars are getting nicer in the food lines” intended, the 2020 COVID-19 story is sure to greatly impact these indicators as many families and households have lost income sources considered at least somewhat safe during 2019 – the final year in each of these indicators.

While the senior population is perhaps less likely to have income sources impacted since many in this age group have retired and already have their finances straight without income from employment, once again we’ll have to wait a year until we see how the 2020 estimates play out for both youth and seniors.