Location: Seattle, WA

New 2008 census figures released today show nearly one in six Northwest children live in households below the poverty line, according to Sightline Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Seattle. While Washington and Idaho’s rates remained statistically unchanged, Oregon’s child poverty rate hit 18 percent, a level comparable to the national average and the highest in the region.

Sightline’s economic security indicator—a compilation of unemployment rates, median incomes, poverty rates, and share of children living below the poverty line—measures economic well-being for low- and middle-income families in the Northwest. According to Sightline’s index, which dropped for the second consecutive year, these families have seen virtually no net progress in economic security since 1990.

“You frequently hear the Dow Jones and GDP used as indicators of economic prosperity, but they don’t tell us much about how ordinary families are faring,” said Eric de Place, a senior researcher for Sightline. “New data show that the small gains made over the last two decades were mostly wiped out by the recent downturn.”

Other findings in the report show that middle-class wages declined more in 2008 than they have in nearly a decade. Adjusted for inflation, middle-income northwesterners earned about $3,000 less than they did in 1998. Additionally, the share of northwesterners in poverty remained statistically unchanged between 2007 and 2008, but is still higher than it was in 1990.

Following national trends, all states in the Northwest have seen unemployment rates increase in recent months. Washington and Idaho are experiencing their highest rates of unemployment in more than a decade. Oregon workers have been hit especially hard. The state’s unemployment rate climbed to 12.2 percent—the highest in the state’s history and among the highest in the nation.

“While high-income earners were bringing in more and more during better economic times, we saw little-to-no progress for ordinary families. Now, middle class incomes are falling and unemployment rates are climbing; families are feeling the pinch,” said de Place.

According to de Place, rising unemployment rates tend to be indicative of economic conditions for lower- and middle-income families. Based on trends in unemployment numbers, the economic turmoil that began in 2008 will continue to mean hardship for ordinary families for a number of years.

Sightline Institute, the Northwest’s sustainability think tank, tracks key trends critical to the region’s future. The report is part of Sightline’s Cascadia Scorecard project, a sustainability report card for the region. Download a PDF of the full report.

September 29, 2009