Booming 1990s still left large pockets of poverty in South, Midwest, despite overall improvements

Thursday, December 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The economic boom that propelled much of America during the 1990s left behind large pockets of poverty. While incomes rose in suburban counties in the West and South, at least a third of residents in dozens of mostly rural counties lived in poverty in 1998.

New Census Bureau figures released Thursday also show that counties in more isolated parts of the South and Midwest, and those along the U.S.-Mexico border, remained the worse off.

In Starr County, Texas, for example, the poverty rate was 44 percent in 1998, the worst in the nation although down from 50 percent in 1993.

The median household income in 1998 for Starr County also improved, to $16,363, but still was more than $22,000 below the national average. Suburban counties near Atlanta and Denver were among those to see the biggest gains.

Although the new numbers are almost four years old, the Census Bureau says they provide the most comprehensive look at poverty and income on the county level.

Left uncertain, though, is how the recently rocky economy and the Sept. 11 attacks will affect gains made during the previous decade, said Deborah Weinstein of the Children's Defense Fund.

``Even in times of economic recovery, there is a substantial number of places with high rates of child poverty,'' she said.

Nationally, 19 percent of children lived in poverty in 1998, down from 23 percent in 1993, two years after the official start of the country's record economic expansion.

But in less-populated places like McPherson County, Neb., and Campbell County, S.D., there were steady increases in child poverty during the five-year period.

``Now we don't have the economic good times, and we can only be very fearful about what will happen with large numbers of families without jobs,'' Weinstein said.

Various factors contribute to the range of poverty and income estimates across the country, said Eva Deluna, a budget analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas. For instance, states like Texas have a higher percentage of minorities and bigger family sizes. Both are characteristics of households that tend to be worse off financially.

``Educating the work force is what most local officials think is most important thing to have to fight poverty,'' Deluna said.

The six counties with the biggest improvements in poverty, on the other hand, were in Mississippi, although each still had rates of at least 26 percent in 1998, 13 points above the national average.

Many of the families probably went from living below the poverty line to just above it, Deluna said.

The poverty threshold differs by household, depending mainly on the size of the family. In 1998, the poverty line for a family of four was an income of $16,660 a year.

During a decade when high-tech growth spurred the economy, some areas that relied heavily on agriculture were left behind, said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Walthill, Neb.-based Center for Rural Affairs.

In McPherson County, Neb., the median household income declined over $9,000 between 1993 and 1998, to $17,391. The largest declines were also in Alaska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The key for farm areas, Hassebrook said, is for states to encourage small business development as a way to keep younger, more educated people from leaving.

``We've got a problem out here,'' he said. ``What we do need in these communities is to encourage young people to stay and create a life there.''

The new income and poverty estimates come from an annual Census report that revises earlier estimates derived solely from survey data. The revised reports also take into account tax returns and Food Stamp income.

The revised results are used in welfare reform evaluations and in the distribution of education grants for poor children.