Poverty and the Oregon Workforce

by Jessica Nelson

November 10, 2020

Even amid continued economic growth at the peak of expansion in 2019, more than 11 percent of Oregonians had incomes below the poverty level. That share is sure to rise in the COVID-19 recession, though we won’t have official figures for some time. Oregon’s poverty rate edged down in 2019 to 11.4 percent, continuing a string of declines that began in 2012 as the state and nation recovered from the Great Recession. Poverty rates in Oregon have tracked pretty smoothly with the national trend over the past decade.

The recent peak in poverty rates lagged behind the employment loss and financial trouble of the Great Recession that lasted from late 2007 to mid-2009, with Oregon poverty rates hitting a high of more than 17 percent in 2011 and 2012. Nationally, the poverty rate topped out below 16 percent in the post-recession period. Since 2012, poverty rates have slowly dipped back down. By 2019, Oregon and the nation were back to poverty rates of about 11 percent and 12 percent – lower than prior to the Great Recession, but not by much.

Among the states and Washington, D.C., Oregon’s 2019 poverty rate ranked 23rd lowest. Poverty rates in 2019 ranged from 7.3 percent in New Hampshire to 19.6 percent in Mississippi. Back in 2006, Oregon’s poverty rate ranked 30th among the states and Washington, D.C. In the midst of the Great Recession in 2011, Oregon’s poverty rate ranked 36th lowest. With that history, Oregon’s recent improvement in poverty rate places us in a more favorable position in national comparisons.
Poverty among the Civilian Labor Force

Narrowing the population to just the civilian labor force – which is composed of people over the age of 16 and either employed or actively looking for work – the poverty rate is lower. Among Oregonians in the labor force, the poverty rate was 6.8 percent in 2019. When Oregon’s overall poverty rate peaked at 17.5 percent in 2011, the poverty rate among the civilian labor force was 12.4 percent. In 2019, the lowest rate of poverty among the labor force was in New Hampshire, at 3.5 percent, while the highest rate was in Mississippi, at 10.7 percent of the civilian labor force.

Digging into more details of Oregon’s labor force, poverty is lower among the employed portion of the labor force, at 5.7 percent. Poverty is much higher among the unemployed – Oregon’s unemployed had a poverty rate of 27.2 percent in 2019. For those Oregon workers who had worked a full-time, year-round schedule in the prior 12 months, the poverty rate plummeted to just 2.1 percent. Those who worked part-time or part of the year in the prior 12 months had a poverty rate of 14.9 percent.

Some Groups Face Higher Poverty Rates

Poverty rates are higher for women than for men, both in the U.S. and Oregon, though the gap isn’t as wide in Oregon. Women’s lower average earnings, their greater family care responsibilities, especially among single mothers, and their longer life expectancies mean more women face poverty than men. In 2019, 11.8 percent of Oregon women and 10.9 percent of Oregon men had incomes below the poverty level. Nationally, the poverty rates were 11.1 percent among men and 13.5 percent among women.

People of color are more likely to face poverty than White people. In the United States, the 2019 poverty rate for those self-reporting their race as White alone was 10.3 percent. For Black and African American people, the poverty rate was double that, at 21.2 percent. I chose national statistics for this comparison because the margins of error are so much lower with national data. A vast majority of Oregonians are White, and for smaller groups, like Oregon’s Black and African American population, the single-year American Community Survey data isn’t very good. Still, looking at the numbers over the last several years, the general pattern in Oregon is similar to the U.S. – some communities bear the brunt of poverty.
Looking at the ethnicity breakout, Hispanics and Latinos face nearly double the poverty rate of those who are White alone, and not Hispanic or Latino.

Poverty and Age

Many of the people in the United States who fall below the official poverty threshold are children or elderly. This is why economic conditions and the availability of jobs don’t change poverty rates very drastically or quickly – many of the people in poverty aren’t willing or able to take a job, so job availability doesn’t change their likelihood of being below the poverty line.

In 2019, 31 percent of the people below the poverty line in the U.S. were under the age of 18. In Oregon, a smaller share of those in poverty were children, at 23 percent. There were 28,200 Oregon children under the age of five in poverty in 2019; they made up 6 percent of people below the poverty line. Another 82,100 Oregon children ages five to 17 were in poverty, accounting for 17 percent of the total below the poverty line.

People age 65 and over account for 13 percent of people in poverty, both in Oregon and the U.S. In Oregon in 2019, 61,200 people age 65 and over had income below the poverty line. However, the population age 65 and over is large enough that the elder population actually has the lowest poverty rate. Oregonians age 65 and over make up 19 percent of the state’s population, but just 13 percent of those in poverty.

United States poverty rates by age group flow smoothly from the highest rates for the youngest age groups, to the lowest rates for the oldest age group. In Oregon, the highest rate of poverty is among those ages 18 to 34. While the share of the population ages 18 to 34 matches the national average at 23 percent, people in this age group make up 30 percent of those in poverty in Oregon compared with 26 percent nationwide. Oregon’s poverty rates for children and for those over age 65 are below the national average.
The turmoil brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and recession has no doubt increased poverty across communities. With the loss of millions of jobs and only partial recovery in sight, people are suffering economic devastation at a scale most of us never imagined. It’s already on my calendar to revisit this topic when new data is available in fall of 2021. From continued unemployment insurance claims information and labor force data, we already know that the workers hardest hit tend to be younger, with less education, and female – groups that already have higher poverty rates than average.



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