Report: Students skew poverty rates
by Kellen Short
The report finds that when all Watauga County residents are included, 28.4 percent live below the poverty level.
But when it excludes off-campus college students who do not live with relatives, only 15.7 percent of the county's population is below the poverty level.
Like all statistical reports, the analysis includes a margin of error because the results were based on a sample, not the entire population. For Watauga County, the margin of error was 4.5 percentage points.
"While the poverty rates for most states would be lower if off-campus college students were excluded from the poverty universe, the declines in the state poverty rates would be quite modest," the report states. "However, at finer levels of geography there are counties and places where the inclusion of off-campus college students has a stronger impact on poverty rates. For some purposes, state and local planners may want to consider using an alternative poverty measure that excludes these students."
The analysis was based on the 2009-11 American Community Survey data and was created in response to numerous phone inquiries about the impact of college students on local poverty rates.
In most studies, the Census Bureau includes in its poverty evaluations all residents except those living in institutional group quarters, military barracks, college dorms and children younger than 15 who aren't related to the householder.
But college students who live off campus are generally counted, even if they still rely heavily on parents or work only part-time, low-wage jobs. Unless the students are living with family, their artificially low income levels get factored in to the whole.
In fact, 51 percent of students across the United States who fell into the "off-campus, not living with family" category had incomes below the poverty level, the report states.
When those students were excluded from the counts, the poverty rate for the United States dropped from 15.2 percent to 14.5 percent. North Carolina's poverty rate fell from 17.2 percent to 16.4, the study shows.
At the town or county level, the changes are sometimes more pronounced. Some North Carolina counties home to colleges and universities show significant declines in poverty rates when off-campus students are left out.
Local agencies that assist people in need say college students rarely seek help.
"In our own organization, maybe 1 percent of the people we serve are college students, so they're almost nonexistent as far as the people we serve," said Compton Fortuna, executive director of the Hunger & Health Coalition.
Very few students seek assistance through the Department of Social Services, Director Jim Atkinson said, adding that the department does not specifically track that population.
When students do apply for government assistance programs, it's most often for Medicaid or child care subsidies, he said. It's rare for students to apply for food stamps, he said, because they must demonstrate that they are not able to purchase a university meal plan.
"Do they give you sort of a false sense of what our poverty population is? ... I guess they do to some extent because I guess some of them may be living with support of their families," Atkinson said.
Lynne Mason, executive director of the Hospitality House, said that although few students seek services at her agency, her initial impression was that a 15 percent county poverty level seemed low.
She said she knows firsthand many students who are paying for their own education and living expenses without help from family -- some working two or three jobs to do so.
"Many students are putting themselves through school, and they might be living in poverty as well," Mason said.
The chart below shows selected counties or towns home to major universities, the difference in their poverty rates after excluding off-campus college students not living with family, and the margin of error for each statistic.
County or town (university) | Difference | Margin of error
Buncombe County (UNC-Asheville) | -0.9 | 1.9
- Asheville | -1.5 | 3.4
Durham County (Duke University, N.C. Central) | -1.8 | 2.2
- Durham | -2.0 | 2.3
Guilford County (UNC-Greensboro, N.C. A&T) | -1.3 | 1.3
- Greensboro | -2.3 | 2.1
Mecklenburg County (UNC-Charlotte) | -0.8 | 1.1
- Charlotte | -0.9 | 1.3
New Hanover County (UNC-Wilmington) | -2.8 | 2.0
- Wilmington | -3.6 | 3.4
Orange County (UNC-Chapel Hill) | -4.8 | 2.3
- Chapel Hill | -11.5 | 3.2
Pitt County (ECU) | -5.5 | 2.3
- Greenville | -10.3 | 3.5
Wake County (N.C. State) | -1.3 | 0.8
- Raleigh | -2.4 | 1.8