Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Nebraska Poverty Rate Fell in 2008

By Jeffrey Robb

Even as the recession started to spread across the country, Nebraska was able to lift people out of poverty, new figures from a federal survey indicate.

Iowa, however, saw its poverty rate increase.

The U.S. Census Bureau, in figures released this morning, says Nebraska's poverty rate dipped to 10.8 percent in 2008 — one of 18 states to see a drop from 2007.

In Iowa, one of 30 states to see an increase in poverty, the rate went from 11 percent to 11.5 percent.

Nebraska's decline — from 11.2 percent in 2007 — backs up other evidence that the state fared relatively well through the recession's early months. Last week, new census figures indicated that Nebraska had the country's seventh-highest growth in real income.

The figures being released today as part of the American Community Survey also show that in the Omaha metro area, the poverty rate was essentially unchanged at 10.7 percent. Statewide, child poverty dropped to 13.4 percent in Nebraska, from 14.5 percent in 2007.

Still, even the positive numbers provided little comfort to groups who saw the recession taking people to the financial edge as it continued beyond the census year into 2009.

“Some of the worst is here and happening,” said Kate Bolz, a community educator with the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest.

Coinciding with the new census figures, the Appleseed Center is releasing a report today on childhood hunger.

The Lincoln-based nonprofit says 14 percent of Nebraska children are “food insecure,” meaning they don't know where their next meal is coming from or might be forced to miss a meal. Yet federal food programs that exist to serve low-income Nebraska children are not being used to their fullest, the group says.

Appleseed called for an increase in the income eligibility limits for the federally subsidized breakfast and lunch programs. The state also should boost reimbursement rates, provide grants to get programs started and offer transportation, the group said.

The report doesn't answer how the state would pay for improvements. While the federal government covers the cost of food, the state helps pay to run the programs.

Nationally, the new census figures reflect the recession's reach across the country by 2008.

Between 2007 and 2008, the national poverty rate grew from 13 percent to 13.2 percent, an 11-year high. Overall, 1 million more people were living in poverty, which this year translates to an income of $22,050 for a family of four.

Household income declined across all groups, but at sharper percentage levels for middle-income and poor Americans.

That has widened the economic gap between the richest and poorest Americans.

The wealthiest 10 percent of Americans — those making more than $138,000 each year — earned 11.4 times the amount made by someone living near or below the poverty line in 2008, according to the census figures. That ratio increased from 11.2 in 2007 and the previous high of 11.22 in 2003.

“No one should be surprised at the increased disparity,” said Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University. “Unemployment hurts normal workers who do not have the golden parachutes the folks at the top have.”

Any state that saw its poverty rate drop performed relatively well in the early part of the recession, said David Drozd, a demographer with the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Public Affairs Research.

But Kathy Bigsby Moore, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska, said she believes the worst of the statistics for Nebraska's poor families are yet to come.

“Families, particularly families with young children, are struggling daily to keep food on the table and clothes on their backs, much less provide health care coverage.”

World-Herald staff writer Erin Grace contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Associated Press.

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