Poverty Has Recently Declined, but Is It Low Enough?

By Dr. Patrick Jones

“The poor will always be with us,” runs a well-known verse in the Bible. But most Americans would likely agree that we would like the number of poor to be as low as possible. Since 2014, the number in the greater Tri Cities is moving in that direction.

Trends indicator 3.5.1 Total & Share of the Population Living in Poverty generally shows the path of these residents over the past 15 years. In 2014, the estimated number peaked at slightly over 44,000; in 2021, the estimate by Census was about 34,000.

Similarly, the share of the population has declined over this interval for the two counties. It has dipped from 13.3% to 11.2%, a change that, as can be seen on the “More Information” page of the indicator, is statistically significant.

Over time, the local share of the population living at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) has been higher than that of Washington. For many years, the local share also came in higher than the U.S. share, but this has not been the case in most recent years and for sure in 2021.

This assessment rests on the construct of the Federal Poverty Level. The FPL originated during the War on Poverty initiated by President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. It was based on an assessment of a minimum food budget at that time and an assumption that non-food costs took up two thirds of a household budget. The formula hasn’t changed since.

The FPL, however, does vary by household size. In 2023, it was about $13,600 for an individual and $27,750 for a household of four. Be extension, those households just slightly above these thresholds are not eligible for any programs that cut off at the FPL. Many anti-poverty programs allow recipients at 125% or 138% of the FPL to qualify, however.

The FPL thresholds s do not vary by location. The same threshold used in the Tri Cities also applies to San Francisco residents. Every year, however, the general FPL increases by the percentage change in the Consumer Price Index and has done so since the 1960s.

It may not surprise local readers to learn that the share of the population at or below the FPL has varied by location within the two counties. By clicking on the radio buttons by geography on the upper right-hand corner of the graph, this is easy to observe. For example, the share of the Benton County population at or below the FPL has averaged 2.5 percentage points below the bi-county average. In contrast, the share of the Franklin County population has averaged 3 percentage points above the bi-county average. The disparity between the two counties is, not surprisingly, reflected in the shares among the three cities.

Over the years, analysts and activists have concluded that the FPL does not adequately reflect the costs of living “at the minimum” envisioned in the original concept of poverty. The critique has prompted the U.S. Census to develop an alternative to the FPL, known at the Supplement Poverty Measure (SPM).

The SPM first accounts for non-cash benefits often received by low-income households, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children (WIC), school lunch subsidies, housing subsidies from the Department of Housing & Urban Development and Home Energy Assistance. The traditional version uses only “money” income.

On the other hand, the Supplemental Poverty Measure deducts from income certain work-related expenses, taxes, child care costs and out-of-pocket expenses for medical care.  A good summary of the issues and proposed remedies is available from the Congressional Research Service and can be found here.

Usually, the SPM yields a slightly higher share of the population living in poverty. For example, in 2019 the official national share, based on the FPL, was estimated at 10.5%, while the national share based on the SPM was 11.7%. The pandemic reversed this relationship, at least temporarily. Census estimated that the traditional measure in 2021 for the U.S. yielded a share at 11.6%; in contrast, the SPM yielded a much lower estimate living in poverty, at 7.8%. This reversal of the two measures was undoubtedly due to the extraordinary support measures put in place by the Trump and Biden administrations in the face of the pandemic.

It remains unclear whether the Supplemental Poverty Measure will supplant the traditional one. This spring, the National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine released a report that recommended the Census Bureau adopt the SPM.  Yet, for sub-national assessments, the only available measure on poverty at the metro level remains the traditional one.

Yes, the poor will always be with us, whether measured traditionally or by the SPM. In most years, the difference has been slight. Regardless of the measure, we might ask:  how many is the community willing to accept? And for how long?