Fewer Kentuckians, kids, living in poverty, census shows. ‘We can’t stop,’ advocate says.

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Kentucky’s poverty rate continues to improve, but new U.S. Census Bureau data shows the Bluegrass state is still among the most impoverished in the country.

With a poverty rate of 17.2 percent, Kentucky is the fifth-most poor state. But there are positives; Kentucky had a poverty rate of 18.5 percent in 2016 and has not had a rate as low as its recent one since 2006, when it was 17 percent.

The census data shows that 22.4 percent of Kentucky children lived in conditions under the poverty level in 2017, which is an improvement from 2016 when the estimate was 25 percent.

Dr. Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, noted the progress, “yet we can’t stop until each of the 222,906 children’s families earn enough to put food on the table and provide safe housing.”

“We know that children thrive when their parents can earn a living and meet the basic needs of their family, and we can celebrate the fact that more and more Kentucky parents are able to do so,” he added.

Numbers also improved for Kentuckians of color. In 2016, 30.2 percent of African Americans and 30.6 percent of Hispanic or Latinos lived under the poverty level. Those numbers each improved by around 5 percentage points for 2017.

The definition of the poverty level depends on the household size. A family of four making less than $24,858 falls is deemed impoverished.

Issues still need to be addressed in order for the poverty rate to continue its decline in Kentucky, according to Jason Bailey, Executive Director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

“Our economy is continuing to recover from the Great Recession, but too many Kentuckians still face problems making ends meet,” Bailey stated. “We need policies to improve job quality standards, such as higher minimum wage, and direct federal and state investment in public job creation that can help rural and other areas more fully recover.”

Kentucky’s per-capita personal income was $39,393 last year, ranking 47th in the country, Workers in the state have seen their paychecks grow more than 12 percentage points slower than the national average, according to data released earlier this week from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. That study also showed that Kentucky has outperformed four of its seven neighboring states in growth of jobs, population and wages.

2017 Poverty Rate in the United States[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]

Nationally, the poverty rate has fallen 2.5 percentage points in a three-year span from 14.8 percent to 12.3 percent. There were 39.7 million people in poverty last year in the U.S., according to the census data.

However, the improvements over the last few years are fragile and “vulnerable to a long-overdue economic downturn,” the New York Times reported.

“If this is the best we can do, it isn’t good,” Timothy Smeeding, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies poverty and economic mobility told the Times.

“Things really tapered off this year, after a serious drop in previous years,” he added. “In terms of the boom, the party has lasted a long time, a lot longer than we thought, but not everybody is getting invited -- people are are working several jobs, taking jobs without benefits, kids who are growing up in poverty. The fruits of the recovery are not being spread around evenly.”

West Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico have the highest poverty rates — all above 18 percent.