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Poverty rate appears to be rising in Washington

The number of Americans living below the official federal poverty line stayed steady last year. That was a surprise to most experts, who predicted it would rise for the fourth year in a row. 

Still, poverty is near it’s highest rate since the modern welfare system began in the 1960s. And, the rate in Washington state appears to be rising.

Currently, about 850,000 people in Washington are officially poor. Poverty is defined by a certain income level – which was adopted back in 1959 and gets adjusted for inflation. Today, it’s about $23,000 for a family of four.

The data released this week are from the Census Bureau's "Current Population Survey," showing national poverty at 15%. State-level figures from that same survey show poverty in Washington rising from 11.5% to 12.5%. But the sample size is small when applied to individual states, so that increase may not be reliable.

Next week, more certainty.

Another census survey is due on Sept. 20th, and it will give more precise numbers for states, counties and cities.

The number of people receiving SNAP food assistance (formerly known as Food Stamps) in Washington went up 4.6% between June 2011 and June 2012. And the use of food assistance has doubled since 2007. 

Washington typically has a lower poverty rate than the national average, which some experts attribute to having less long-term, multi-generational poverty. 

"We don't have large pockets of intractable poverty, even in our cities," says Marieka Klawitter, a labor economist at the Evans School at the University of Washington. "We also don’t have the same loss of manufacturing jobs as in the east and midwest."

Keith Seinfeld has been KPLU’s Health & Science Reporter since 2001, and prior to that covered the Environment beat. He’s been a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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