Poverty rate in Asheville area rises faster than the nation's

Posted 12/08/11

County’s 17.1 rate exceeds national average as tough economy continues

Poverty rate in
Asheville area rises
faster than the
nation’s

ASHEVILLE — The Great Recession pushed Buncombe County residents into poverty more rapidly than Americans as a whole, U.S. Census Bureau figures suggest.

Buncombe County’s poverty rate reached 17.1 percent last year while the national
rate stood at 15.3 percent, according to Census Bureau estimates released last week.

That’s a switch from the middle of the last decade, when the poverty rate in
Buncombe was lower than the national rate.

The local poverty rate was 12.5 percent in 2005 and 12.7 in 2006. The national rate
was 13.3 percent both years.

There is some uncertainty as to why Buncombe has performed more poorly
than the nation on the key measure of economic well-being.

Unemployment figures by themselves do not explain the shift. The jobless rate in
Buncombe County has generally been lower than the national rate, and that was still the case in every month of 2010.

Wages and income in Buncombe County have historically trailed national figures. It is possible that has left local residents more likely to slip into poverty than most Americans if they lose their jobs or even just have their work hours reduced.

Whatever the cause, there is no dispute among those who work at organizations
that help people in economic hardship that the number of people who need their
services has increased significantly.

The higher poverty rate “doesn’t come as a surprise,” said Joshua Stack, spokesman at MANNA FoodBank, which supplies a number of food pantries and social service
agencies around Western North Carolina.

“Our agencies consistently report to us that they’re seeing longer lines, more extended families,” he said. Buncombe County’s poverty rate for children has been higher than the national one since at least 2005 and stood at 24.2
percent last year.

The new poor

The number of people receiving food stamps through the Buncombe County Department of Social Services has doubled, from about 18,000 in January 2008 to a little more than 37,000 today, said program administrator Tim Rhodes.

“We’re seeing many more folks now who you might have considered part of the
lower middle class,” Rhodes said. “They’re just not earning the wages they used to.
Their jobs are gone.”

At Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministries South in Arden, people
who need help are “just pounding our doors in,” said director Bill Brown.

The area that ABCCM South serves has seen some of Buncombe County’s most
significant growth over the past couple of decades, but that has apparently not
insulated it from the effects of the economic downturn.

“The people in south Buncombe are just as bad off as people in west Buncombe or
north Buncombe or east Buncombe,” Brown said.

Seeking help is unfamiliar territory for many people served at ABCCM South, he said.
“A lot of these people that come in now are people who have always helped nonprofit
organizations,” Brown said. “I see a lot of people who come who say, ‘I never thought I would be in this situation.’” The Census Bureau’s poverty rates are
estimates and may vary from the actual rate, particularly in smaller counties.

Other counties worse off But the trend in Buncombe seems clear even if the estimates are not precise. The figures also strongly suggest that for all of the problems in Buncombe, many of WNC’s less populous counties have been hit even harder.

Twelve of 16 WNC counties had higher poverty rates than those in Buncombe.

One was Mitchell County, where the poverty rate for 2010 was estimated at 18.5
percent.

The caseload has doubled at Tipton Hill Community Outreach, a food pantry in
northwestern Mitchell County, said director Ed Martin.

“It’s been a gradual increase. When (the economy) really began to fall apart in 2007 and 2008, it wasn’t immediate that we saw the increase,” Martin said.

But as problems in the job market continue, residents have exhausted their
unemployment benefits and have nowhere else to turn, he said.

Many take on odd jobs like mowing grass or cutting firewood and get help from their
extended families, but that’s often not enough to lift someone out of poverty,
Martin said.

And things could get worse before they get better, he said: “The winter is the
desperate months where there’s just nothing anywhere for anybody to do.”

What’s poverty?
Here are examples of income thresholds below which the Census Bureau considers people to be living in poverty. Figures for those 65 and older are slightly different.
Household size/Threshold
One person/$11,344
One adult, one child/$15,030
Two adults, one child/$17,552
Two adults, two children/$22,113

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