Poverty rate low, but does it tell the whole story?

Six children.

Young parents, both working.

A rented house in Marysville.

The Mansfield family is all-American: blended, and struggling to make ends meet.

Danny Mansfield, 32, took a job about 10 months ago at Boeing, where he was trained to be a wire assembler. He makes $13.22 an hour.

“I think they really start the employees off a lot lower than they should be,” he said. “It’s OK if you’re able to stick it out and you don’t have a family, then it’s not that bad. But when you’re providing for you, your wife, your kids, your pay really is not enough to get by.”

For the Mansfield family, he said, life is “definitely check-by-check.”

The U.S. Census Bureau announced this month that though the poverty rate has risen in Washington state, Snohomish County has the second-lowest number of families — just 8.8 percent — living below the poverty line in the state. Only Island County has fewer people — 8 percent of its population — living in poverty. The bureau used data from 2001 through 2005.

Yet experts say those numbers don’t measure real life.

“We get numbers, but the numbers don’t reflect our reality,” said Diana Pearce, a social welfare professor at the University of Washington. “We’re living in this schizophrenic world.”

The federal poverty threshold was developed in the 1960s and hasn’t been adequately updated, Pearce said.

Under the 2007 federal guideline, the poverty threshold for a family of four is $20,650. The threshold for a single person is $10,210. For two people, children or adults, it’s $13,690.

Those amounts may be fine for some parts of the country, but the cost of living in Snohomish County is very different than, say, in upstate New York.

That’s why Pearce developed the Self-Sufficiency Standard, an alternative to the flat federal poverty guideline.

Her scale accounts for child-care costs, cost-of-living variations between regions, and ages of a family’s children.

Under Pearce’s scale, for example, one adult living in east or north King County needs just over $21,000 to be self-sufficient. If that adult has a preschool-age child, the annual income needed nearly doubles, to $40,000. In Yakima County, one adult needs about $16,000, and one adult with a young child needs more than $26,000.

Most federal and state assistance programs base eligibility on recipients’ having an income that is a certain percentage of the federal poverty guideline.

For the 2007-2008 school year, students must come from households earning no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold to qualify for free lunch.

To qualify for food assistance through the WIC Program, families must live on less than 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold.

It’s unlikely that the federal poverty guideline will change to better reflect reality anytime soon, said Jennifer Romich, a professor of social work at UW.

“Can you imagine the politician who wants to raise the poverty line and have poverty go up on his or her watch?” she said.

The fact that the federal guidelines have remained stagnant while the poverty rate climbs is an indicator that people in Washington state aren’t doing well at all, Romich said.

And while just 8.8 percent of Snohomish County’s residents live below the poverty line, there are many more struggling to get by.

According to Pearce’s Self-Sufficiency Standard, between 16 and 21 percent of the county’s residents are living paycheck to paycheck.

That makes the county one of the more financially successful in the state, compared with Walla Walla County, where 30 percent or more are struggling, and even Island County, where more than 22 percent face hardship.

Still, the cost of living in Snohomish County, for some, is just too high.

Paul Gant, at $13.32 an hour, makes $17,500 more than he needs to meet his basic needs for a healthy lifestyle, according to the federal determination for living above poverty level.

But he rents a room from a family member in Renton. He said that’s the only way he can make ends meet through his job at Boeing’s Everett plant.

“I just about break even,” he said. “I don’t have much left over for anything. I cannot foresee moving up from where I’m at to something better, and I can’t afford a better vehicle or another place to live.”

“I’m pretty much stuck right now.”

The economy improved in 2004 and 2005, but that doesn’t mean low-income people benefited, said Tony Lee, advocacy director at the Statewide Poverty Action Network in Seattle.

“You can have a lot of jobs in biotech and high-tech fields, but low-income people can’t get those jobs,” Lee said. “It’s things like being a wire assembler at Boeing that’s an accessible job.”

When, for some families, those jobs pay a poverty-level wage, people begin to feel the pinch as they’re priced out of areas considered to be thriving economically.

“The rising tide doesn’t lift all boats,” Lee said. “In our state, one out of five working families don’t make enough to meet their basic needs.”

Poverty in Washington State:

Statewide: 12 percent

Snohomish County: 8.8 percent (second lowest in state)

Island County: 8 percent (lowest in state)

King County: 9.6 percent

Skagit County: 13.3 percent

Okanogan County: 21.8 percent (second highest in state)

Whitman County: 26.6 percent (highest in state, including students at Washington State University, which make up nearly half the county’s population)

Median incomes (half of all household incomes are greater, and half are less):

Snohomish County: $60,002 (from 2006 Census)

Island County: $49,022 (from 2006 Census)

King County: $63,489 (from 2006 Census)

Skagit County: $48,222 (from 2006 Census)

Okanogan County: $29,726 (from 2000 Census)

Whitman County: $28,584 (from 2000 Census)

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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