from The Gainesville Sun
By JEFF ADELSON
College students driving luxury cars down W. University Avenue may not seem impoverished, but they likely are being counted as part of Gainesville's poverty rate, which is more than triple the national average, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released Tuesday.
Though statistics show that 32.3 percent of Gainesville residents were below the poverty line in 2006, an increase of more than 5 percentage points since the 2000 census, economists and even officials with the Census Bureau caution that the figures may only reflect part of the story.
The 66,000 students at the University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College - many of whom report little or no income because they are full-time students - may skew poverty figures for Alachua County, with a population of about 215,700 people. In addition, the relatively small population of the county may add to uncertainty about the actual rate.
According to the statistics released Tuesday - based on the American Community Survey, a yearly study conducted by the Census Bureau designed to eventually replace the traditional Census - Alachua County had a poverty rate of about 22.4 percent in 2006, compared to Gainesville's 32.3 rate.
Statewide, the poverty rate is about 12.6 percent and the official poverty rate for the United States, which is determined using a different study, is about 12.3 percent.
But the statistics show that those living in poverty in Alachua County are disproportionately college-aged, likely reflecting the large number of students with little income of their own at UF and SFCC.
About 64.3 percent of those living in poverty in Gainesville are between 18 and 24 years old and about 52 percent of those living in poverty countywide are in that age range.
If the statistics are adjusted to bring Gainesville's college-aged population into line with the rest of the state, both the city and county's poverty rates come into line as well, said David Denslow, an economist with the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
"I think, then, that Alachua County's official poverty rate exceeds Florida's only because we have so many college and university students, most of whom are going to do quite well financially from a lifetime perspective," Denslow wrote in an e-mail. "That doesn't mean that Alachua County does not have a poverty problem. It means that the state and the nation have a poverty problem, and Alachua County is part of that broader picture, neither better nor worse."
In determining whether someone is below the poverty line for the American Community Survey, the Census Bureau uses a formula based on the size of a family and the number of minors it contains. For example, a family of three with one child less than 18 years old would be considered to be in poverty if the family's income was less than $16,000.
To some extent, the Census Bureau strives to take into account the impact specific populations can have on the results. The poverty figures, for example, don't take into account people living in dorms, military barracks or prisons, said Sharon Stern, chief of poverty and health statistics for the Census Bureau.
Even without the influence of students, Census officials urge caution when drawing conclusions from the poverty statistics. Gainesville's relatively small population yields survey results that often have a wide margin of error, Stern said.
For example, according to the survey, the number of people living below the poverty line in Gainesville was between 27,064 and 34,134 in 2006. Because it is unclear exactly where the actual number falls within that range, it is difficult to say how significant the new results are, Stern said.
Still, such statistics can be useful for spotting trends even if they cannot be used to pin down an exact number, she said.
"(The change) might look to be very big and yes it might be statistically significant and indicate direction, but it might not be the magnitude it appears," Stern said.
Nailing down the area's actual poverty rate has been an exercise that has frustrated local officials in recent years.
In 2005, the Alachua County Commission paid the Census Bureau to recalculate the poverty rate by excluding students. The report presented to county commissioners indicated that without students - 26,085 of whom met federal poverty guidelines - the poverty rate dropped from 22.8 percent to 13.9 percent.
Such discrepancies need to be taken into account when developing policies based on statistics that may be impacted by the area's student population, Denslow said. This includes areas like poverty and unemployment, which is traditionally lower in college towns because students are more likely to not be seeking work, he said.
"Numbers like this are interesting, in a sense it's a way of keeping score, but in this case this particular number is biased against us," Denslow said. "Just like for unemployment, they're probably biased in our favor."
Jeff Adelson can be reached at 352-374-5095 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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