Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 11, 2008: Census: Number of WA people in poverty on the rise

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SPOKANE, Wash. — The number of Washington residents living in poverty is up sharply since 2001, with increases in every county except Garfield, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The agency reported this week that 12 percent of the people in the state were living in poverty in 2005, the latest year for which figures are available. In 2001, just 9.9 percent of the state’s population was in poverty.

The state had 732,049 people living in poverty in 2005, compared with 586,456 people in 2001, the bureau said. The federal poverty line in 2005 was $19,350 for a family of four.

The number of people in poverty rose even as the median household income in the state climbed from $46,284 in 2001 to $49,372 in 2005, according to Census Bureau numbers analyzed by The Associated Press.

The increase in poverty might surprise some residents, thanks to Washington’s general image as a state with low unemployment, high income and steady job growth. But Tony Lee of the Statewide Poverty Action Network in Seattle was not surprised, because Washington has lots of low-paid workers.

“Low-income people sometimes don’t benefit from overall economic expansion,” Lee said. “They are the last to be hired and first to be fired.”

While much attention is focused on good-paying high-tech and aerospace jobs, the reality is that the biggest job categories in the state tend to be less glamorous work in places like stores, restaurants or the service sector.

“Most pay less than $13 per hour,” Lee said.

Rod Wieber, director of community services for Second Harvest Inland Northwest in Spokane, likewise wasn’t surprised by the poverty findings. The network of 21 food banks in Spokane County serves more than 15,000 people each month.

A survey last year found that 41 percent of the households it helped had at least one person working full or part time, Wieber said.

The Census Bureau has changed methodology in compiling the statistics in 2001 and 2005, so direct comparison of the numbers is not completely accurate. The agency used the Current Population Survey prior to 2005, and used the American Community Survey for 2005 and after.

The ACS is an annual mail survey that covers 3 million households, from every county in the nation. The old Current Population Survey method covered 100,000 households in 40 percent of the nation’s counties, and had a higher margin of error, the Census Bureau said.

But the trend toward rising poverty was verified by separate numbers generated by state demographers, which also showed an increase of about 2 percentage points. Harold Nelson, of the state Office of Financial Management in Olympia, said that office’s data show that most of the increase occurred between 2001-03.

The increase is something of a puzzle because the state has seen declining welfare levels, a rising minimum wage and a declining unemployment rate, Nelson said.

The federal poverty level percentage rose in every county except tiny Garfield, where it remained the same at 14.3 percent.

The largest county, King, had the largest number of poor people at 167,720 in 2005. That amounted to 9.6 percent of the population, up from 7.5 percent in 2001.

The highest percentage of people living in poverty was in Whitman County, at 26.6 percent. Whitman County’s numbers are skewed because nearly half the county’s population is made up of students at Washington State University.

Among metropolitan areas, Yakima County had the highest percentage living in poverty at 21.5 percent. Yakima County is home to a large population of immigrants from Mexico, many of whom work in the seasonal farm economy.

The Puget Sound-area counties, where much of the state’s population and prosperity is centered, had relatively low poverty rates. In addition to King at 9.6 percent, Kitsap was 9 percent and Snohomish was 8.8 percent.

Among other major population centers, Pierce County (Tacoma) was at 11.3 percent, Spokane County was 14.6 percent and Clark County (Vancouver) was 11.5 percent.

The lowest percentage of poor people was in Island County, at 8 percent.

In addition to Whitman and Yakima, counties that hit or topped 20 percent were Ferry, Kittitas and Okanogan.

Median household income rose in every county from 2001 to 2005.

The highest median income was in King County, $58,351 in 2005. Other high-income areas included Snohomish County ($54,897) where many Boeing jobs are located; Kitsap ($53,127); Benton ($52,683), home to high-paying jobs on the Hanford nuclear reservation; and Clark ($51,124)

Among metro areas, the lowest pay was in Yakima County ($35,333).

The lowest median income in the state was in Whitman County ($31,672); Okanogan County was second at $32,052.

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