Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

September 26, 2011

Poverty rate increases in area

BLUEFIELD — More than 21,000 people in Bluefield and surrounding areas are living in poverty according to a study released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey indicated poverty rates increased to 20.4 percent during 2010, up from 17.9 percent in 2010 in the Bluefield micro area, which includes Mercer County and portions of Tazewell County in Virginia. The study also found that median household income decreased by approximately $1,500, going from $33,398 in 2009 to $31,841 in 2010.

Sean O’Leary, a policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said poverty rates in Bluefield have always been higher than the state average.

“The Bluefield area’s poverty rate has been consistently high over the past few years, both before and after the recession,” O’Leary said. “The Bluefield area’s poverty rate was 21.4 percent in 2006, 21.4 percent in 2007, 21.1 percent in 2008, 17.9 percent in 2009, and 20.4 percent in 2010. However, none of the changes year to year have been statistically significant, meaning that since the data comes from surveys, changes year to year have been within the margin of error.”

Though factors such as rising utility rates are not factored into the study, O’Leary said the study does take into consideration cost-of-living increases as well as unemployment rates.

“I don’t think local utility rates factor into the poverty threshold,” he said. “Instead the U.S. Census Bureau would factor in what the national average utilities and other costs of living are. High unemployment definitely plays a role in poverty, particularly prolonged unemployment. If unemployment benefits are exhausted before a person can find work, they can very quickly fall into poverty.”

According to O’Leary, the child poverty rate in the Bluefield area was at 23.7 percent in 2010, lower than the state average of 25 percent. O’Leary said the poverty rate for people aged 65 or older was a 9.6 percent for the Bluefield area, lower than the statewide average of 9.9 percent.

The poverty rate for residents without a high school diploma was at 30.9 percent in 2010, higher than the statewide average of 29.5 percent. The poverty rate in the Bluefield area for residents with at least a bachelor’s degree was at 5.6 percent in 2010, also higher than statewide average of 4.6 percent. The WVCBP said “education remains the strongest shield against poverty.

In light of the recent numbers, O’Leary said the WVCBP has made suggestions about how state officials can combat poverty.

“Our suggestions include job training and job subsidies to get people back into the labor force and back to work,” O’Leary said. “Long spells of unemployment can result in people falling into poverty. Another important factor is improving the education level in our workforce. West Virginia has one of the least educated workforces in the country, and as we noted in our release, the difference in poverty levels by education is stark.”

According to O’Leary, studies have shown that state and federal aid programs can also reduce poverty numbers.

“Programs like food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid and Medicare have all kept millions of people out of poverty nationwide,” O’Leary said. “We don’t have exact numbers for West Virginia yet, but we know from past experience that those programs and others like them are very effective at keeping people out of poverty in West Virginia.”

Of the nine areas of West Virginia featured in the study, the Bluefield area had the third highest poverty rate in 2010 behind the Huntington-Ashland Metro Area at 21.7 percent and the Morgantown Metro Area at 29.9 percent. In 2009, Bluefield had the fourth highest poverty rate of the nine areas studied, falling behind the Morgantown Metro Area at 21.3 percent, the Huntington-Ashland Area at 20 percent, and the Beckley Micro Area at 18.1 percent.

The Charleston Metro Area, Beckley Micro Area, and Morgantown Metro Area were the only three of the nine areas studied that showed any decrease in poverty rates over the two-year period.

— Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com

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