Poverty and low incomes plague Idaho, but the Gem State is better off than much of the country in both areas, according to new U.S. Census Bureau reports of 2017 data.
Census data released Sept. 13 shows that Idaho has the 26th highest rate of people in poverty at 12.8 percent, but the census categorizes Idaho at the second lowest level of five levels. The top level is 18 percent, then 16.0 to 17.9 percent, followed by 13.0 to 15.9 percent and 11.0 to 12.9 percent. Only 13 states came in below 11 percent. The national average is 13.4 percent.
The census classified 216,309 Idaho residents in poverty, a drop of 21,136 from 2016 – but still nearly the equivalent of the entire Boise population. Idaho had the second highest percentage point decrease in poverty in 2017 behind Washington, D.C., according to the census.
Strong on Income Equality
Idaho may rank 41st in median household income at $52,225, but the Census Bureau has Idaho in the second highest income level out of four levels. The census classifies household income as above $60,000, $50,000 $59,999, $45,000 to $49,000 and less than $45,000.
“We’re at the bottom of the second rung,” noted Janell Hyer, an Idaho Department of Labor research analyst, who went on to set Idaho apart from third and fourth rung states: “We have a strong, growing economy.”
The census recorded a median household income drop of about $220 from 2016 to 2017 but noted a margin of error of $871. Hyer would rather refer to the state’s wages covered by unemployment insurance, which covers about 90 to 95 percent of working individuals. Covered wages rose from $39,700 to $41,300 from 2016 to 2017, she said.
Idaho is also among the 10 states with the lowest income inequality between the rich and the other 90-plus percent of the population, which is due to the fairly small number of very rich in Idaho.
“I’m glad I live in a state where we are all about the same,” Hyer said.
“We don’t have the same density of people at a really high salary scale,” said Wil Gehl, executive director of The Community Action Partnership Association of Idaho, which fights the causes of poverty.
Idaho’s housing prices are close to the national median, but Idaho’s household income falls about $8,000 below the national median household income of $60,336, according to the Census Bureau.
“We are seeing a rising rental burden,” said Wyatt Schroeder, executive director of CATCH or Charitable Assistance to Community’s Homeless. “We’ve caught up with the national average (in housing prices). We are still so far behind in wages. How many people pay more than one-third of gross income on rent?”
Idaho, however, rates in the best of four categories in terms of income inequality. Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Alaska and Hawaii also were in the best category for income inequality.
The poverty rate in Idaho was at 12.8 percent in 2017, a half percentage point below the national average of 13.4 percent. Idaho’s poverty rate dropped from 14.4 percent in 2016.
This is reflected in the downward trend in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps participants from 235,502 in January 2012 to 166,433 in July 2017 and 151,748 in July 2018, according to Idaho Department of Health and Welfare statistics.
The census counted 216,309 Idahoans living in poverty in 2017 – a family of four earning less than $24,600 or an individual earning less than $12,060.
However, Gehl said food insecurity is still a significant problem in Idaho.
“We are not seeing a decline in food insecurity across the state,” Gehl said. “Our demand increased 6 to 7 percent. Fewer people are on SNAP, but more people seek food assistance.”
The census determined that the number of Idaho residents living below 50 percent of the poverty line has decreased from 102,062 in 2016 to 92,767 in 2017 or 5.5 percent of the population. The national rate was 6.0 percent. Idaho ranked 31st in the nation.
“There has definitely been some gain in the area of people with no income or extremely limited income,” Gehl said.
The census also noted that 296,964 Idaho residents live at below 125 percent of the poverty line or 17.6 percent of the population, a hair below the 17.9 percent national average.
The data comes from the American Community Survey, the bureau’s annual survey of about 3,500 addresses for demographic, social, economic and housing data.