The Tennessean, January 14, 2008: Tennessee poverty rate rises more quickly than U.S. rate

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Staff Writer

For the last fewyears, Ray Parson has lived a poor man’s life. He has been without ahome, staying with family and friends around Murfreesboro a few nightsat a time.

Thosewho work with the poor say more and more people in the Nashville areaare ending up like Parson living below the poverty line. And whilehe’s not a statistician, Parson has figured out that there are morepoor people in his community.

“Irun up on people (in his situation) all the time,” drinking coffee atfast-food restaurants or walking the streets of Murfreesboro, Parsonsaid.

“They just move around, trying to see where jobs are,” Parson said.

Thelatest U.S. Census numbers show Tennessee’s poverty rate rising morequickly than the national rate. Economics experts say things haveprobably gotten worse since these figures were tallied in 2005.

Thetrend shown by the 2005 figures is not as bad in most Nashville-areacounties as it is statewide. But those who deal with poverty every day researchers, charity operators and the poor themselves say they’veonly seen more need.

InNashville, traditionally the area’s most impoverished county, censusfigures showed the poverty rate actually went down 1 percentage pointfrom 2004 to 2005. The stats put Davidson County’s 2005 rate at 14.7percent; almost 1 point lower than the state poverty rate but about 1.5points higher than the national rate.

“Ifyou are talking about real basic crisis services” needs like food,shelter and help with rent and utility payments “we haven’t seen” adecrease, said Dani Lieberman with the United Way in Nashville.

Lieberman oversees the way money is disbursed from the United Way to the nonprofit agencies it helps fund.

“There have been large increases,” Lieberman said. “There’s no shortage of need.”

Tennessee rate went up

In 1997, the first yearanalyzed by the census study, Tennessee’s poverty rate was about thesame as the national rate. But from 1997 to 2005, Tennessee’s rateincreased by two percentage points to 15.6 percent, while the nationalrate dipped around 2001 then rose back to 13.3 percent.

Povertyrates for the state’s children and teens also rose faster than thenational rate, increasing 3.2 percentage points from 2000 to 2005alone, according to census data. The national increase over the sameperiod was 1.8 percentage points.

DavidPenn, director of the Business and Economic Research Center at MiddleTennessee State University, called the trends “troubling,” especiallythe increase among children.

Foradults, “it could be the loss of jobs in manufacturing,” Penn said.”Apparently, they’re not getting as good a job as they did in the past.”

ButJames Foster, economics professor at Vanderbilt University and seniorfellow at the Institute for Public Policy Studies there, said thecensus numbers are too old to draw real conclusions about where povertyin Tennessee stands today.

It could be worse now

The census figures stop at2005. Since then, he said, bankruptcies and foreclosures have been onthe rise, more refugees have moved to the area and a national recessionis looming. All those factors can play heavily into poverty rates.

“I don’t think anyone has a good handle on what’s happening with poverty,” Foster said.

Pennand Foster agreed that using the figures to compare rates over a shortperiod of time can be misleading. Large increases or decreases over asingle year can indicate major changes, Penn said, or “it could be dueto the chance of the sample.”

“It’s kind of inconclusive,” he said.

Accordingto the census figures, Rutherford County’s poverty rate is increasingfaster than any of Nashville’s other neighbors. Figures show thecounty’s 2005 poverty rate at 11.8 percent, almost 2 percentage pointshigher than the previous year and 4.3 points higher than the 1997 rate.

Thecensus numbers show four straight years of increases starting in 2001.Those numbers don’t surprise Jim Hargrove, who helps poor families.

“Overthe last several years, we’ve had a steady increase year by year,” saidHargrove, a pastor and director of the West Main Mission inMurfreesboro. It provides food, clothes and financial assistance toneedy families in Rutherford and Cannon counties.

Hargroveestimated a 5 percent increase in demand for those services in each ofthe last two years. He thinks the area’s prosperity is drawing peoplewho need jobs.

“Everybody hears there’s work in these counties, so a lot of people migrate,” Hargrove said.

Many of them are already poor, expecting to change their fortunes.

“People come in looking for jobs, and by the time they get here they’ve exhausted most of their resources.”

Others, like Ray Parson, have been around all their lives.

Parson, 58, said he worked at a car wash, making enough to get by until he quit about 10 years ago because of back problems.

Since then, he’s done landscaping and other odd jobs part time.

“I can work. I just can’t work as hard and steady like I did,” he said.

Parsongot a boxed lunch and some clothes at the West Main Mission Fridayafternoon. He said he hopes his fortunes will change in a few years,when he’s old enough to draw Social Security.

“Before I quit work, I had what I wanted. No problem,” he said. “Sometimes now, I wonder where I’m going to eat tomorrow.”

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