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Oregon Has 44 Census Tracts in Persistent Poverty

The tracts have had 20 percent or more of their population living in poverty at various intervals over the past 30 years. Just over 4 percent of the state’s population qualifies for the designation.

the Downtown Rockwood, Ore., sign
Part of the Rockwood neighborhood on the border of Portland and Gresham has been designated as an area in persistent poverty by the U.S. Census Bureau. (Kristine de Leon/The Oregonian)
Many residents of downtown Portland and Gresham’s Rockwood neighborhood in Oregon are in “persistent poverty,” a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau shows.

An area is considered in persistent poverty if it had 20 percent or more of its population living in poverty at various intervals over the past 30 years. Although no entire Oregon counties fit that description, a study of data from 1990 to 2019 shows that about 5 percent of the state’s census tracts did.

People living in persistent poverty areas often have limited access to healthcare, quality education and jobs, and healthy and affordable food, according to the Census Bureau. Other experts say the measure in some cases points to areas that have suffered from generations of systemic disinvestment.

Eight of Oregon’s 44 persistent poverty tracts are in Multnomah County. Those include much of downtown Portland, the Central Eastside, the Portsmouth neighborhood in North Portland, the King neighborhood in Northeast Portland and Rockwood, all areas with high concentrations of public housing serving very low-income individuals and families.

The remaining tracts are spread across 11 other Oregon counties, including Lane, Benton, Klamath, Marion and Jefferson counties. Several of those areas include large numbers of college students living off campus — including in Eugene, Corvallis, Ashland and La Grande — while others include sparsely populated parts of rural Oregon.

In all, just over 4 percent percent of the state’s population, almost 174,200 people, live in census tracts designated as persistently poor, according to the census study.

To determine if someone is in poverty, the government uses a threshold developed in the 1960s based on the amount of money spent on food. At that time, the government estimated that families spent about one-third of their incomes on food, and so the official poverty threshold was set by multiplying food costs by three.

The poverty level is $30,000 for a family of four, or $14,580 for an individual, under 2023 federal guidelines. The thresholds are updated each year to account for rising costs and are the same for all states except Alaska and Hawaii.

Federal officials identified Oregon’s areas of persistent poverty by examining rates from census data compiled in 1990, 2000, 2009 and 2019, the latter of which is now four years old.

The Oregonian/OregonLive analyzed the latest poverty rates, from 2021, and found that at least five tracts saw rates drop below 20 percent. (The boundaries of nine other tracts changed). The tracts now below the threshold include the King neighborhood in Portland, downtown Salem, downtown Albany, an area near Western Oregon University in Monmouth and an area west of downtown Medford.

Measuring Poverty Accurately Matters

Researchers and community leaders say persistent poverty is a complex issue with multiple interconnected causes, including systemic issues, structural inequality, lack of access to education and poor infrastructure, among others.

David Rothwell, a sociology professor at Oregon State University who researches poverty, said “the biggest cause of persistent poverty in both urban and rural communities is the economy, more specifically good-paying jobs for many people in the community.”

Government agencies often want to identify areas with high rates of poverty over time to determine if they need additional support.

Rothwell said poverty metrics determine who gets government assistance, like subsidized housing, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, Medicaid, utility assistance and subsidized child care.

However, the government’s official measure uses outdated thresholds and has limitations to accurately capture the true state of poverty, particularly in Oregon, Rothwell said.

To account for the shortcomings of the official poverty measure, namely the impact of government aid, Rothwell and his colleagues developed a new method for measuring poverty. Much like the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, the OSU group’s measure accounts for tax credits, SNAP and other benefits, and adjusts for local living costs, providing a more accurate tally of household resources.

“It’s important to include government aid in measuring poverty because when we do account for aid, it’s going to reduce the poverty rate,” Rothwell said.

The government’s official poverty measure didn’t capture, for example, how the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act lifted 2.9 million children out of poverty. The expanded tax credits have since expired and have not been renewed, however.

On the other hand, Rothwell also said the threshold for measuring poverty is outdated, failing to account for rising costs and true living conditions.

People making as much as double the poverty rate, about $60,000 for a family of four, can include what he would consider the “working poor,” who work full time but still struggle to make ends meet from month to month.

“More recently, inflation and rising housing costs have made it harder for families to get by,” Rothwell said. “At the same time, policymakers are adjusting the eligibility and benefits for many safety nets to pre-pandemic levels.”

Stephanie Barr, executive director of Lift Urban Portland, a nonprofit aimed at reducing hunger in Northwest and downtown Portland, said the government’s measure of poverty might not capture all the people who can’t afford the basics. She said there are a lot of people who are just above the official poverty line who are still really struggling to get by.

Barr said there are many food-insecure households that are not considered poor enough to qualify for SNAP benefits. To qualify for SNAP benefits a household income generally has to be no more than 130 percent of the poverty line, or about $39,000 for a family of four.

“Food insecurity would not be so prevalent if the government’s measure of poverty was sufficient,” Barr said. “At Lift UP, we consider food security more than having access to enough calories to survive. For us, it means having meaningful, reliable access to nourishing food that meets your cultural, familial and dietary needs.”

She said demand for food assistance in Northwest and downtown Portland has increased 20 percent each year since the pandemic began in 2020. She said demand went up further in March, when the federal government ended pandemic-era payments for low-income families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

According to Barr, 29 of Lift UP’s 50 on-site food programs in Northwest and downtown Portland have seen a 57 percent increase in food distribution in the past year. Barr said that increase was likely driven by the reduction of SNAP benefits.

“I think the general cost of living and disinvestment in critical resources and programs like SNAP are driving food insecurity,” Barr said. “With the increased costs of food, a lot of people are experiencing food insecurity for the first time. … When you live on a fixed income and prices go up, people are stuck making tough decisions choosing between paying for rent, healthcare, or food.”

Examining Rates in Oregon

Poverty rates in some Oregon tracts are highly influenced by two factors: the number of college students living off campus, and the number of affordable housing for very low-income Oregonians.

While poverty estimates explicitly exclude people living in group housing — such as dorms, correctional facilities, or residential nursing homes — census poverty estimates do include college or graduate students who live in off-campus housing.

A previous report by the Census Bureau found that the presence of college students who live off campus raises the community’s poverty rate in small counties with a large university and in large counties with multiple universities. That’s because many college students have low incomes and may contribute to high poverty rates in the areas where they live, according to the bureau.

The Oregonian/OregonLive adjusted the poverty rate calculations to account for students living off campus and found that some census tracts saw significant reductions in poverty levels. For example, two census tracts near Portland State University each had a 2021 poverty rate of just over 40 percent, but accounting for off-campus students reduced the poverty level to just under 30 percent for each tract.

Another example is in Monmouth, near Western Oregon University, where a census tract had a poverty rate of 31 percent in 2021, but removing the college student population lowered the rate to 17.5 percent.

Similarly, a census tract in Corvallis encompassing a large portion of Oregon State University, as well as a tract in Ashland that includes Southern Oregon University, each had a much lower poverty rate when removing students from the equation. In Eugene, two census tracts just south of the University of Oregon campus would have seen its poverty rates reduced by half if only counting nonstudents in the estimates, The Oregonian/OregonLive’s analysis shows.

Housing for low-income residents also impacts poverty rates.

For example, tracts with long-term high poverty in the downtown Portland, Rockwood area and in the Portsmouth neighborhood also have high concentrations of public housing. In these pockets, public housing units made up more than 40 percent of total housing units, according to public housing data compiled by Portland State University, including homes subsidized through federal housing assistance programs.

Generally, households in Oregon must earn no more than 50 percent of the area median income to qualify for housing vouchers, which typically allow renters to search for a home in the neighborhood of their choosing. Ivory Mathews, the CEO of Home Forward, Oregon’s largest public housing authority, said that most of Home Forward’s public housing households are considered “extremely low income,” with incomes below 30 percent of the area median.

According to Mathews, the number of households supported by Home Forward in the Rockwood neighborhood has increased every year since 2016. As of August, the housing authority had 951 households living in Rockwood, representing 8 percent of all households assisted by the organization.

At the same time, the growth in the use of the housing voucher program has enabled more people “to live in neighborhoods that they could otherwise not afford,” Mathews said. That has led to reduced concentration of poverty in areas like Rockwood in recent years. She said Oregon’s ban on exclusive single-family zoning and Portland’s policy that requires that new apartments include some units affordable for low-income tenants will further reduce the concentrated pockets of poverty in the region. She said families who live in areas of high poverty have a higher risk for chronic disease and stress and lower life expectancy.

Mathews said children living in high poverty “are more likely to be in poverty as adults, and that impacts what they can pass onto their children.”

Lynn Ketch, executive director of the Rockwood Community Development Corporation, said the Rockwood area has a higher proportion of renters when compared to other areas of Multnomah County and Oregon. A report by the Rockwood CDC found that the median Rockwood household spends about 42 percent of its income on rent, which is considered an outsize share that can strain an individual’s budget.

Although housing in the Rockwood area is known to be cheaper than similarly sized units than in other parts of the Portland metro, residents tend to pay a higher proportion of their incomes on rent, Ketch said.

Mathews said the road forward in alleviating poverty is to provide more housing that’s affordable and accessible to all. But that requires substantial public subsidies or other funding, and one vital program, the low-income tax credit, faces caps on how much money can be allocated in Oregon.

“The low-income housing tax credit program has been one of the biggest tools we’ve used to produce affordable housing not just in the state of Oregon, but across this country,” Mathews said. “Now that we are essentially capped out and maxed out, it makes it more difficult for us to produce housing units.”

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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