Half of Idaho school districts have poverty rates among their students above the national poverty rate for children ages 5 to 17 and nearly all of them are in rural parts of the state.
Official poverty estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau are augmented by estimates from government agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and private organizations like the nonprofit Alliance for a Just Society in Seattle, which publishes an annual living wage report.
Government poverty estimates are important because they determine eligibility for housing rental and heating assistance, subsidies for home maintenance and repair, and low-interest, first-time home mortgages. The living wage is the amount a household must earn to meet basic expenses. The Alliance for a Just Society adjusts its calculations to reflect the different cost-of-living levels in cities and states.
The 2014 Occupational Employment and Wage Survey by the Idaho Department of Labor estimated the median wage in Idaho at $14.68 an hour – enough to meet the basic needs of a single adult using the alliance criteria. The median is where half make more and half make less.
The Census Bureau’s estimate of median household income in Idaho is $21.78 an hour, which is more than $3 an hour below the alliance’s estimate of the living wage needed to support a household of one adult and two children – the closest example to the average Idaho household that the Alliance uses. If the average household is also in the middle of all households, that leaves the income for the average Idaho household 13 percent short of meeting its basic living expenses.
The Census Bureau’s poverty estimates for 2012, the most recent year available, place 57 of Idaho’s 115 school districts with student poverty rates over the national rate of 21 percent for children 5 to 17 and another 17 districts at rates above the statewide average of 19 percent for children 5 to 17.
These Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates put the three school districts with the highest student poverty rates in southwestern Idaho, where 33 of the 115 school districts are located and the student population exceeds 25,000.
The Notus School District had a poverty rate of 40 percent, the highest in the state, followed by Midvale in Washington County and Caldwell in Canyon County at around 35.5 percent. Overall, the region had a comparatively moderate student poverty rate, in part because of high income pockets in areas like western Ada County that includes parts of western Boise, Eagle and Meridian.
In contrast, the Swan Valley School District in rural eastern Bonneville County had a student poverty rate of just 8.1 percent. That region of the state has the second lowest regional student poverty rate.
Regionally, the highest poverty rate of 22 percent for school age children was in south central Idaho with 20 school districts. Only three of those districts had rates below the state average of 19 percent – Blaine, Camas and Dietrich – where real estate signifies real wealth. Northern Idaho had the second highest rate at 19.3 percent over 14 districts. North central Idaho had the lowest rate at 17.8 percent.
Poverty takes on many shapes and forms. The working poor, most working paycheck to paycheck, live throughout Idaho. Many are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, which cuts into time spent with families and on education or training. Improving job skills is a key to economic advancement. Some states include financial health as part of their middle and junior high school curriculum. Others replaced senior projects with work opportunities or matched students with mentoring adults to enhance student consideration of career choices.
Covered wages, those on payrolls covered by unemployment insurance premiums accounting for roughly 90 percent of all jobs, have grown by 1.8 percent in 2013 while inflation over the same period grew by 1.5 percent. Keeping up with the pace of inflation would normally be a good indicator, but this low level of wage growth is insignificant especially after years of even slower growth. Job growth has also been slow in this post-recession recovery but the last year added 16,619 jobs at a rate of 2.3 percent. In most cases, employers used wage raises to either pay for higher health care premiums or take a return on investment for small business owners.
Comparisons with other states indicate Idaho’s poverty rate is middle of the road in most age categories. The southern states continue to experience high levels of poverty while the areas with extreme winter conditions entice new residents with jobs as evidenced in the chart below. Residents of Alaska usually live there because they love the wildlife and scenic outdoors or they have a high paying job. North Dakota has experienced a rush of workers similar to the gold rush days and infrastructure struggles to keep up. It could be worse as many move there in a recreational vehicle with the intent of temporary work and not settling down permanently which lessens the impact somewhat.
Jan.Roeser@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
(208) 735-2500 ext 3639