Chattanooga Times Free Press, January 11, 2008: Poverty grows as does economy

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Poverty grows as does economy
Friday, January 11, 2008 –

By Dave Flessner
Staff Writer

Nearly one of every five students in Hamilton County lives in poverty, according to new government figures.

Despite overall growth in the local economy since 2000, the U.S.Census Bureau estimates the number of school-aged children living inpoverty in Hamilton County has increased by more than 30 percent from2000 to 2005. Across Tennessee, newly released census figures show thepoverty rate rose in 2005 to the highest rate in 12 years.

“Part of the population is doing well and seeing income gains, butanother part is falling behind,” said David Penn, director of theBusiness and Economic Research Center at Middle Tennessee StateUniversity. “Those with the skills and education needed in today’sglobal economy are doing well. But many others are not.”

28141-growing_poverty.jpgEvenbefore the recent economic slowdown, median income in Tennessee rose ascant $2 from 2004 to 2005 to $38,947 — the 10th lowest income amongstates, according to other data released this week by the CensusBureau. Median income is the point at which half of all people earnedmore and half earned less.

Harry M. Johnson, Sr., director of the Bradley-Cleveland CommunityServices Agency and president of the Tennessee Association of CommunityAction, said relief agencies are getting more requests for food andother help, and the number of people staying in homeless shelterscontinues to rise.

“The economy is growing, but there are a lot of people working intemporary jobs or at places with little or no benefits,” he said. “Whenthey get hit with a health problem or other emergency, they have a realproblem.”

Tennessee’s overall poverty rate in 2005 rose to 15.6 percent of allresidents, up from 15 percent in the previous year, census figuresshow. In 2005, 904,143 Tennesseans lived below the poverty level,including 40,125 people in Hamilton County, according to figures.

Nationwide, poverty rose from 12.7 percent to 13.3 percent in 2005, census figures show.

Families with children continue to have higher rates of poverty.Tennessee’s poverty rate for children was 21.8 percent in 2005 and roseto as high as 36 percent in Grundy County.

In the classroom, school officials said, higher rates of poverty often create more hardships for educators.

“Educating kids who are in poverty is a more difficult task,” saidRay Swoffard, deputy superintendent of campus support in HamiltonCounty. “If you have a middle-class child, he or she is more apt tohave been in a formal preschool, been taken on vacations and been readto at home. But a student in poverty oftentimes comes from a latchkeyhome with a single parent who may also have lived in poverty growingup. Low-income children in many inner-city areas often lack thelanguage skills going into school that children from wealthier familiesenjoy.”

28141-Poverty_In_Hamilton_Schools.jpgInGrundy County, where there are fewer higher-paying jobs and higherrates of poverty, school Superintendent Joel Hargis said there are morespecial education students and more challenges meeting federal No ChildLeft Behind academic standards.

“We have good teachers and students, but we don’t always have the resources that a lot of other people do,” he said.

Among Tennessee’s 95 counties, Grundy had the state’s fourth-highest poverty rate in 2005, census figures show.

The poverty figures released this week could help direct morefederal money to Tennessee, however. Joanne Webb, a spokeswoman for theU.S. Department of Education, said the census figures released thisweek will help allocate federal Title I funds for disadvantaged schoolsin the 2008-2009 school year.

The 2005 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau are the latest figuresavailable. But more recent figures on Tennessee’s food stampparticipation suggest that the growing economy may have helped toreduce the number of poor persons needing help in 2006 and 2007.

In November 2007, the most recent month for which figures areavailable, 886,906 Tennesseans were receiving food stamps, including39,210 in Hamilton County. Two years earlier in November 2005 at thepeak, 887,114 Tennesseans were on food stamps, including 40,404 inHamilton County.

Families are eligible to apply for food stamps if their income isnot more than 130 percent of poverty, or $26,845 for a family of four,according to the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

But the most recent Human Services figures show that the number ofTennesseans getting food stamps in November 2007 was 31 percent higherthan in the same month five years earlier.

“Many of the service industry jobs that are growing don’t pay asmuch as the manufacturing jobs they are replacing, so we are seeingmore people in need,” said Kerry Mullins, director of planning andevaluation for the department.

E-mail Dave Flessner at

The U.S. Census Bureaugathers information from its own American Community Surveys and otherinformation such as food stamp enrollments, birth and death data andfederal tax returns to calculate its poverty rate estimates, agencyofficials said. The 2005 numbers used in this story are the latestavailable from the bureau. Robert Bernstein, an agency spokesman, saidpoverty estimates for local jurisdictions typically are released morethan two years after the estimate date to allow all the information tobe compiled.

The poverty rates released Wednesday by the federal government willbe used to allocate Title I funds to local schools and other assistanceprograms to local areas next year, officials said.

Poverty is defined by the federal government as three times theestimated cost of feeding a family based upon the assumption that foodcomprises one third of a poor family’s expenses. According to the 2007federal guidelines, the poverty level for a family of four is $20,650 ayear.



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