You wouldn’t know it from Oregon figures, but child poverty just skyrocketed

You wouldn’t know it from Oregon figures, but child poverty just skyrocketed

You wouldn’t know it from Oregon figures, but child poverty just skyrocketed

Last week, the Census Bureau released much-anticipated poverty figures. Nationally, child poverty more than doubled — the largest increase in more than 50 years. But in Oregon, child poverty appeared flat over the same period. What gives?

The seeming inconsistency is quickly explained by the use of different measures of poverty — an answer that, in turn, raises deeper questions about how we measure what it truly takes for a household to meet their basic needs.

Here is what we learned last week: child poverty across the nation catapulted from 5.2 percent in 2021 to 12.4 percent in 2022, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure. The Supplemental Poverty Measure departs from the official poverty measure, which dates back to the 1960s and says that families are poor when their income is less than three times the cost of a modest basket of food. The Supplemental Poverty Measure not only does a better job at accounting for family expenses and differing costs of living, but also factors in tax credits and non-cash benefits that help families meet their basic needs.

The fact that the Supplemental Poverty Measure counts tax credits as income largely explains the huge jump in child poverty. The immensely successful, enhanced Child Tax Credit (CTC) put in place by Congress in 2021 lasted only one year. During its brief existence, the enhanced credit slashed child poverty almost in half, so its disappearance caused child poverty to come roaring back in 2022. Across the county, three million more children lived in poverty in 2022 than would have if Congress had renewed the enhanced Child Tax Credit.

Unfortunately, the Supplemental Poverty Measure is not available on a year-to-year basis at the state level. So here in Oregon, we are left with the official poverty measure, a measure that severely understates what it takes to make ends meet.

But even if the Supplemental Poverty Measure were more available at the state level, this measure would still fall short of measuring real economic need.

We know this based on the work of researchers who have sought to calculate the level of income needed to make ends meet. One excellent measure is the United Way’s Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) Index. Unlike the poverty line, ALICE takes into account all essentials: housing, child care, food, transportation, and more. It reflects what it actually takes to live and work in the modern economy. According to the most recent ALICE data, more than two in every five Oreognians live below that threshold.

Regardless of the measure of poverty or economic insecurity we employ, it’s clear that there are policy solutions at hand that can help improve the lives of Oregonians in greatest need. Two of those fall into the category of cash policies.

At the federal level, it’s a no-brainer for Congress to reinstate and make permanent the enhanced Child Tax Credit. A major success of that expansion was making the credit fully available to the lowest income families. That and an increase in the amount of the credit were the main reasons why child poverty at the national level dropped by the largest margin on record between 2020 and 2021.

At the state level, lawmakers wisely created the Oregon Kids’ Credit, which takes the best pieces of the enhanced federal CTC and creates a new state level child tax credit for Oregon’s lowest-income families with children aged 0 to 5. An estimated 55,000 children in Oregon stand to benefit from the credit, and those families will receive up to $1,000 per eligible child starting this tax year.

Still, in order to solve poverty, Oregon lawmakers must prioritize getting flexible cash resources to the Oregonians in greatest need. Responses to the pandemic proved that unconditional cash transfers are an effective and efficient means of bolstering people’s economic well-being. Oregon lawmakers must prioritize policies that help create an income floor beneath which no Oregonian can fall. A policy that creates a guaranteed income at the state level ought to be a priority in coming legislative sessions.

As the recent Census data reminds us, poverty can look very different, depending on what measuring stick you use. But ultimately, it’s better to use a measure that more fully encompasses the reality under which families live — and to put into action policies proven to improve economic security.

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Tyler Mac Innis

Tyler Mac Innis is a Policy Analyst with the Oregon Center for Public Policy

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