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Pierce County poverty rate above state average

By Staff | Feb 27, 2009

Nearly 18 percent of children from 0 to age 17 in Pierce County are living in poverty, according to the latest statistics released by the North Dakota State Data Center.

The figure, 17.5 percent, is three and a half percent higher than the state average (14 percent), and nearly on par with the national average (18 percent).

The Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) program, which is part of the U.S. Census Bureau, provides annual estimates of the number and percentage of total persons and children living in poverty. These estimates are based on a sample of households.

Although this information was a little over a year old, poverty rates in recent years have been fairly stable in the state, according to Dr. Richard Rathge, director of the state data center.

The overall poverty rate in the county is 12.8 percent, which is also slightly higher than the state average and close to the national rate.

The poverty thresholds are set by the U.S. Census Bureau and vary depending on family size and number of children. The latest threshold is an income of $10,590 for one person and $21,027 for a family of four children with two under the age of 18.

It’s important to note the poverty percentage is somewhat fluid, taking into consideration a margin of error based on the data collection process from residents sampled.

The median household income in the county is $31,442, according to the 2007 data.

The poverty rates are higher in neighboring counties, such as Benson, Rolette and McHenry. In Benson and Rolette, one in every four residents there is living in poverty and 38 percent of children 0 to age 17. For McHenry it’s 14.8 percent overall, and 21 percent of children age 0 to 17.

The national poverty level in 2007 was 13 percent. The breakdown is as follows: 18.0 percent of children ages 0 to 17 were living in poverty; 20.8 percent of children ages 0 to 4 were living in poverty.

Although a sagging economy is a source of concern nationally, North Dakota’s economy has not experienced a downturn. Unemployment remains quite low — 3.5 percent — and a rising per-capita income will likely help to keep poverty rates at current levels, or perhaps show a decrease over time.

Rathge cautioned the figures are just averages, and while there is economic growth, there is still a good percentage of North Dakotans who do live in poverty.

Another segment of the population to consider is those living on fixed incomes, especially seniors relying on pensions or retirement plans. A falling stock market has eaten into those assets. And a prolonged recession with continued losses will make it particularly challenging for these individuals to meet expenses. More may end up living at the poverty level and in need of additional public assistance programs.

Mary Hermanson, director of Pierce and McHenry counties social services, said a large majority of the clients they serve are employed, often at, or slightly above, minimum wage, and often without any benefits in jobs that do not provide enough to meet increasing living expenses. As a result, they turn to assistance programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to provide vouchers for food.

SNAP serves 186 households in the county, reaching approximately 384 residents. In January, a little over $41,000 in food assistance dollars were spent in the county. Neighboring McHenry had about $43,000, and Rolette saw about $647,000 used.

While the program aids families and individuals with limited incomes, it’s also a benefit to the community, as many of those dollars are spent at local stores that sell food.

In addition to SNAP, social services has seen increased inquiries and participation in heating assistance programs in recent years.

Hermanson pointed out that a number of local organizations and groups have helped meet the needs of residents through charitable endeavors.

Residents living at the poverty level are a fact of life, and in Pierce County, it’s evident it extends to all demographics.

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