Kentucky poverty

This visual from the U.S. Census Bureau highlights poverty rates by state.

FRANKFORT — Kentucky’s improving economy, like the national economy, is lowering the poverty rate in the commonwealth.

But the Bluegrass State remains among the poorest in the country.

According to data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau, 17.2 percent of Kentuckians lived in poverty in 2017, an improvement over the 18.5 percent state poverty rate in 2016. But that rate still leaves Kentucky the fifth poorest state in the United States.

If you’re young, the numbers are worse though also improving: 22.4 percent of Kentucky children lived in poverty last year, down from 25 percent in 2016. And where you live affects the likelihood that you live in poverty in Kentucky.

The 5th Congressional District had by far the highest poverty rate — 29.1 percent. The district is annually ranked among the poorest congressional districts in the country. The district has also been devastated by the collapse of the coal mining industry which now employs thousands fewer miners in high paying jobs.

By comparison, poverty rates in the other five districts are: 1st – 18 percent; 2nd — 14.9 percent; 3rd —14 percent; 4th — 11.9 percent; and the 6th —16.6 percent.

Kentucky has a higher percentage of people living in poverty than all but one of the surrounding, contiguous states — West Virginia has 19.1 percent of its residents living in poverty. But the corresponding rates in the other states are all lower than in Kentucky: Illinois, 12.6; Indiana, 13.5; Missouri, 13.4; Ohio, 14; Tennessee, 15; and Virginia, 10.6.

West Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico are the poorest states. West Virginia was one of two states which saw the poverty rate rise; the other was Delaware but its 13.6 rate was only slightly higher than the national rate of 13.4 percent.

The federal poverty line is defined as a family of four with a family income of $24,850 or less.

The improvement in Kentucky reflects a national trend. The national poverty rate has declined to 12.3 percent down from 14.5 percent three years ago. But that 12.3 percent nevertheless represents nearly 40 million people in the richest country on earth who live in poverty.

The improvement in Kentucky is also in comparison to higher rates of poverty in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008 and the 17.2 percent of people living in poverty is still nearly two points higher than the 15.4 percent rate in 2001.

“Our economy is continuing to recover overall from the Great Recession, but too many Kentuckians still face problems making ends meet,” said Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Progress based in Berea. “We need policies to improve labor standards, such as a higher minimum wage, and direct federal and state investment in public job creation that can help rural and other areas more fully recover.”

Kentuckians of color face higher rates of poverty than white Kentuckians, with black Kentuckians’ poverty rate at 25.7 percent and Latino Kentuckians at 25.8 percent compared to the white poverty rate of 16.1 percent. The black and Latino poverty rates showed improvement this year, falling from 30.2 percent and 30.6 percent in 2016, respectively.

Other data from the Census Bureau’s “American Community Survey,” shows Kentuckians’ median age is slightly higher than the country’s: 38.9 to 38.1; the $48,375 median family income is $12,000 less than the national median; and while Kentucky remains below the national average for high school graduates, it’s catching up. Kentucky’s most recent rate is 86.3 percent compared to the national rate of 88.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.