Person working on an RV

What Is Poverty?

A person is at risk of poverty when they don't have enough money to pay monthly expenses like food, rent, and utilities. Before the age of 75, 76% of Americans will experience poverty (spend at least one year below 150 percent of the official US poverty line), rely on social assistance, or have a financial setback related to unemployment and other unexpected expenses.

Being in poverty makes it hard to afford necessities.

If a household doesn't have enough income or access to other forms of support, they may not be able to access basic needs such as healthy food, stable shelter, and the ability to form strong community relationships. 

Everybody benefits from less poverty.

Reducing the number of people who live in poverty creates a healthier, happier, and safer community for us all. Starting with Black and Indigenous households that experience poverty will create solutions that uplift everybody in need.

Who Is Affected by Poverty?

Insights from the data below:

  • BIPOC households are the most impacted by poverty in King County. In King County, the US Census estimated that 5.7% of white people were living in poverty in 2019. In contrast, 18.9% of Black people, 18.6% of Indigenous American people, and 9.8% of Hispanic people were living in poverty.
  • People who live in communities with high poverty rates are being forced to the outskirts of Seattle, or out of the city entirely. The majority of low-income neighborhoods are on the south side of Seattle.

How Can We Measure Poverty?

The federal government has measurements to determine when a household is living in poverty. The Official Poverty Measure is based on income, family size, age, and minimum food cost in 1963, which is adjusted annually for inflation. 

What are the limitations of the Official Poverty Measure?

  • Living expenses are oversimplified
  • Non-cash benefits such as housing subsidies and food assistance are not included as income
  • Traditional two-parent families are not as common today as they were in 1963
  • The cost of living is not adjusted for families living in different areas

The Supplemental Poverty Measure is based on income, benefits, and household size (regardless of relationship), as well as expenses for food, clothing, shelter, and utilities. These numbers are adjusted by location and adjusted for modern costs. 

What are the limitations of the Supplemental Poverty Measure?

  • Measurements are only available for states, and not counties or cities

Both measures include only basic living costs, without including other common expenses like healthcare, childcare, and transportation. While these measurements provide a helpful tool for analyzing the number of households in poverty, they do not tell us what households need to exit poverty and truly thrive. 

The Self-Sufficiency Standard by the Center for Women's Welfare is another way to measure poverty. It estimates the amount of income required to meet a household's basic needs without needing public or private assistance. This standard examines:

  • All major budget items (housing, childcare, food, etc.)
  • Regional cost variances
  • Costs by age group
  • Modern household arrangements (such as unmarried or multi-generation)
  • Net effect of tax credits

Why should we be critical of using income to measure poverty?

  • Income is only one indicator of the resources a household can use to support themselves-there are other sources of wealth, such as access to loans or access to professional networks.
  • The majority of wealth in America is inherited, not earned in income. While BIPOC families may earn more income now than in the past, they still face substantial wealth inequality due to generations of historical oppression

Stories from the Community

The Impact of COVID-19 on Poverty

Northwest Harvest and United Way of King County explain how the pandemic has impacted hunger and poverty. They provide resources for food support in the area.

Jody Olney

Seattle Indian Services Impact on Community

Read more about the story of Jody Olney, director of the Seattle Indian Services commission, and her mission to develop programs improving the living conditions of American Indians and Alaska Natives in King County. 

What Are Some Root Causes of Poverty?

Poverty happens to individuals and famiilies for many reasons. Structural racism makes BIPOC people more vulnerable to living in poverty, and makes it harder for them to escape. This chart depicts a small sample of the root causes of poverty for BIPOC communities.
Click the boxes below to learn more about each root cause.

Websites and Articles


Who Is Taking Action?

The lists below are not intended to be comprehensive. There are many wonderful organizations doing work in the community. We encourage you to continue exploring beyond this page.

Explore the City of Seattle's Actions Towards Racial Equity

See who to contact, what we'll deliver, and how we plan on meeting our desired outcomes.