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Why This Topic?

Almost every positive personal and community outcome is negatively affected by poverty, including short- and long-term health. Of particular concern are children living in poverty. Poverty is to a great extent a community problem of resources, rather than just an individual problem. The status of resources like affordable housing, transportation, education and training, jobs providing a living wage, health insurance, and available child care to a large extent determine an area’s poverty rate. 

Lead Indicator  

How Are We Doing?

Not well. Currently the estimates are over 16% of Missoulians live in poverty, compared to about 11% in 1970. In the 1980s, Missoula’s poverty rate rose past national averages. The percent of children living in poverty has at least doubled since the 1970 census (from 10% to over 20%). In actual terms, that’s about 4700 children from 0 to 18 years of age in Missoula County who live in poverty. Even more worrisome, nearly 50% of impoverished Missoula children live in deep poverty, which is half of the poverty level.  (Paul Miller 1992) 

In 1998, related children under age six living in U S families with a female householder with no husband in the household had a poverty rate of almost 55% — more than five times the 10% rate for their counterparts in married-couple families. (Poverty in the US, 1998) In Missoula in 1989, more than 65% of these female householders lived in poverty. (US Census)

Missoula Children in Poverty

% of Missoula County Elementary School Students Eligible For Free Lunch Program (Average 1997-1999 School Years)

Note: This table provides a better sense of how poverty is geographically distributed among Missoula's children.



Free Lunch




Chief Charlo



Cold Springs









Lewis & Clark






Mount Jumbo












Other Schools-K-8






















Seeley Lake



Target Range



Compiled by MCCHD-Health Promotion Div. from data provided by MT OPI, MCPS, and Frenchtown School District, February-(March 2000).

Note: With the closing of MCPS Emma Dickinson and Roosevelt Schools, many students transferred in 1999 to new schools, in particular Hawthorne and Paxson.  Their actual enrollment and Free Lunch Program stats for this year will be higher than shown above.

For the past three years, an average 27 percent of Missoula County’s elementary (K-8) students have been receiving free school lunches. An additional eight percent receive lunch at reduced prices (not included on graph above). To qualify for the federally funded free school lunch program, the child’s household income must fall at or below 125 percent of poverty (185 percent for reduced school lunches). For the average family of four in the U. S., the poverty guideline (used to determine eligibility for programs) is defined by an annual household income of $17,050 (2000).

For those in Missoula County interested in supportive conditions for all our children, poverty may be the most critical factor to contend with other than whether a child is safe and has at least one competent, loving adult in his or her life. The percent of children living in poverty has at least doubled since the 1970 census (from 10 percent to over 20 percent). That’s about 4,723 children and youth 0 to 18 years of age in Missoula County. The Free and Reduced Lunch Program (FRLP) data helps us track children in poverty between each 10 year U. S. Census (although it might slightly underrepresent actual status because of the forms that are required to be filled out, because of lack of trust in government, and because of perceived stigma in registering for the program.

Even more worrisome, nearly 50% of impoverished Missoula children live in deep poverty, which is half of the poverty level  (Paul Miller 1992).    In Missoula in 1989, 2/3 of these female householders lived in poverty, as compared to 55% nationally in 1998.  (US Census)

Although the children most vulnerable to living in poverty are those under five, in 1998 children under 18 years of age in the U. S. continued to represent a large share of the poor population (39 percent) even though they were only about 26 percent of the total population (Poverty in the U. S., 1998, U. S. Census Bureau, Sept. 1999, Website:  http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/povty98.htm ). 

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Poverty in Missoula -- All Ages

While Montana’s poverty rates from 1989 through 1996 resembled the national rates, they were the highest for states in the Northwest Region (Who Is Poor?, 1999, Institute for Research on Poverty, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, Website:   http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/irp/faq3.htm ).  Most likely this reflects two factors.  One, the presence of seven Reservations in the state; all-age poverty rates in the U. S. are highest among minorities (see Who Is Poor?, below).  Two, poverty rates in rural areas are higher.  In the past two decades, unemployment increased in rural areas while part-time and “informal” employment increased, and earnings of rural workers decreased in relation to urban workers.  The “working poor” (workers earning below-poverty wages) are more common in rural areas (Paul Miller, 1992).  It remains to be seen to what extent these factors will affect the Census 2000 poverty rates for Missoula County, a community undergoing rapid growth.  The following table compares poverty in Missoula to that of Montana and the U. S. as of the 1990 Census.


 Who Is Poor?

The 1999 poverty thresholds (used for statistical purposes) for people under 65 are, for a household of two, $11,214; for a household of three, $13,290; four, $17,028; five, $20,115; and six, $22,719 (Census Bureau, U. S. Dept. of Commerce, Website:  http://www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/threshld/99prelim.html ).  The official poverty definition counts money income before taxes and does not include capital gains and noncash benefits (such as public housing, medicaid, and food stamps).

Nationally, most notably blacks, individuals in female-headed households, and Hispanics have poverty rates that greatly exceed the average.  The poverty rate for all blacks and Hispanics has remained near 30 percent during the 1980s and mid-1990s (Who Is Poor?).  From 1989 to 1996, poverty rates in the South, including D.C., were the highest in the nation.  Closely following were the poverty rates for states containing large areas of Reservations, including New Mexico, Arizona, and Montana (Ibid.).  Employed American Indians are more likely to earn wages below poverty levels. Underemployment is more prevalent among rural minorities than nonminorities (Paul Miller).  Poverty levels on the seven Montana reservations are the highest in the state, reaching up to 50 percent of the population (Montana State Advisory Council on Food and Nutrition, 1993). 

Additionally, although in 1996 about six percent of U.S. families with an aged member were poor, almost 21 percent of aged persons not living with family members were poor.  Fifty percent of people in Missoula County over the age of 60 live alone and have annual incomes of less than $10,000 (Report to the Community, Missoula Aging Services, 1999).


Hunger is measured as a lack of food security and food deprivation. Poor families, particularly young families and those headed by single women, are at the greatest risk for hunger. 10% of Montanans experience hunger on any given day. (J.Smith) Problems also arise in the quality of nutrition poor families receive. Many diets are restricted to only a few kinds of foods. Children who are hungry do not fare well in school (WIC, MCCHD).  Inadequate nutrition can cause social withdrawal, delayed motor skills development, and delayed physical growth (Dramatic Increase in Montana's Young Child Poverty Rates, The Prevention Connection, Vol. II, Issue 4, Winter, 1998).

Results of Long-Term Poverty

"Continuous economic insecurity can lead to serious emotional, mental, and social stress, increase the risk of domestic violence and neglect, and promote poor health and the inability to maintain employment. All this can lead to family breakup and increased incidence of behavior that our community considers unacceptable" (M. Medora)Poor children face greater risk of stunted growth, anemia, repeated years of schooling, lower test scores, and less education, as well as lower wages and lower earnings in their adult years (Poverty Matters for Children, Press Release April 10, 1998, Childrens Defense Fund). 



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