While poverty rates fell by 10 percent in most of Washington during the 1990s, Cowlitz County was one of just eight counties in the state where a higher percentage of residents were extremely poor by the end of the decade.
A reminder of the 1990s prosperity may be cold comfort to a state where 38,000 jobs have been lost since January. That is especially true in Cowlitz County, where layoffs in wood products and metals industries have pushed the unemployment rate to among the highest in the state.
Most counties made strides in reducing poverty rates during good economic times. The Associated Press looked at poverty rates from 1989 to 1998, the most recent figures available. In 1998 there were 569,830 people living in poverty in Washington state, 10 percent of the population.
Cowlitz County's poverty rate rose by 1 percent during the decade, as did the rates in Kitsap and Island counties. Some counties fared far worse: Lincoln County's poverty rate increased 18 percent and four other counties' rates rose between 3 percent and 9 percent. Klickitat and Thurston county poverty rates didn't budget.
The poverty rate dropped sharply in Wahkiakum County (down 14 percent), modestly in Lewis County (down 9 percent) and slightly in Pacific County (down 1 percent).
Child poverty rates fell 18 percent from 1989 to 1998 in Washington. Child poverty decreased in all but four counties: Lincoln, Island, King and Whitman. Statewide in 1998, there were 206,558 children living in poverty, 14 percent of the population under 18.
The federal poverty level in 1998 was $16,450 for a family of four. Now it's $17,650.
The new estimates were being released Thursday.
Of the Census Bureau's high, middle and low estimates of poverty and income, The AP's analysis focused solely on the middle figures. Because those estimates are built from survey data and statistical models, the margins of error may affect comparisons between different areas or comparisons of a single area's numbers over time.
In a separate report issed by Washington Kids Count this week, Cowlitz County family incomes were up slightly to $30,203 in 2000 over the year before, but the money families spent on child care rose faster than incomes. The income data is from before recent layoffs in the county.
The Kids Count report also showed that the county's children also showed declines in some health measures, such as low birthweights, hospitalization for asthma and child abuse and neglect.
State Sen. Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls, said declines in the mining, timber and agricultural industries are hurting Ferry and Lincoln counties, both in his district. A big mine shut down in Ferry County during the 1990s. And he said many poor people are moving from Spokane to neighboring Lincoln County in search of cheaper housing. He said things are much worse now.
"It has plummeted," Morton said. "They're really in tough shape up there now."
Sharon Hart, executive director of the Island County Economic Development Council, said that while the average hourly wage in her county increased 75 percent from 1990 to 1997, underemployment may be fueling the poverty rates. She noted that Island County has a higher-than-average home ownership rate, a statistic that shows economic health in a community.
She said that statewide, the move from welfare to work may contribute to poverty rates.
"There's a lot of working poor in this state," Hart said.
Annabel Kirschner, chairwoman of the Rural Sociology Department at Washington State University, said it's important to remember that the numbers are merely estimates. For small counties especially, the data may not be reliable. Kirschner said the dramatic 18 percent increase in poverty rates for Lincoln County seems too high, for instance.
The Census Bureau will release more current data next year with numbers from the 2000 Census.
Kirschner said plant closings and the general downward trend in the logging and natural resources industries probably contributed to poverty rates increasing in some areas.
She said that the 2000 Census numbers will likely show that the Puget Sound and Vancouver area benefitted most from the strong economy of the 1990s, with diminishing returns farther from the major cities.
"You'll find that the metropolitan areas along I-5 did very well, but then radiating out, those counties did less well," Kirschner said.