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Poverty numbers remain steady in 2007, could increase in 2008

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Stacy Vogel
August 29, 2008

The good news: Rock County’s poverty rate did not rise in 2007.


The bad news: Local officials aren’t so optimistic for 2008.


“Conditions are certainly ripe for additional families to fall off the edge, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that number go up next year,” said Lisa Furseth, executive director of Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties.


The percentage of residents in poverty stayed about the same in Rock County in 2007, according to numbers released Tuesday from the American Community Survey, a yearly project through the U.S. Census.


The survey estimates that 10.7 percent of residents lived below the federal poverty line in 2007, a slight drop from 2006’s rate of 11.3 percent but well within the survey’s 1.8 percent margin of error.


The 2007 number is still well above 2005’s total of 7.7 percent in poverty.


The figures could get worse in 2008. Many local and national current economic problems didn’t hit until late 2007 or 2008, said James Otterstein, the county’s economic development manager.


Gas and food prices have skyrocketed across the country in recent months, and the nationwide housing crisis has led to an increase in foreclosures locally. Plus, layoffs and cutbacks at Gilman, Simmons, and GM and its suppliers have left many unemployed.


“It’s probably a fair statement that there will be changes (in 2008) based on the fluctuations that we’re dealing with in the economy,” Otterstein said.


The county has seen its economic assistance caseload increase this year, said Cindy Sutton, economic support division manager at the Rock County Job Center. At the start of the year, the county was handling about 13,000 cases, she said. This week, it was up to more than 14,000.


Part of the increase comes from the state’s expanded medical insurance program, BadgerCare Plus, Sutton said. But the job center also is seeing people looking for assistance for the first time, she said.


“Part of that is the downsizing and layoffs that have been happening,” she said.


Karen Lisser, ECHO executive director, said she was surprised the numbers didn’t go up in 2007. The local charity has been seeing increased needs every year, she said.


But some ECHO clients don’t fall under the federal poverty line, she said. Lisser and others across the country have criticized the government’s poverty line for being too low and using outdated standards.


The poverty threshold for a family of four in 2007 was $21,203


“The government really does need to look at that poverty line,” Lisser said. “What they’re calling poverty is artificially low; it’s unlivable.”


Still, the 2007 data is good news, Furseth said. As Rock County deals with the problems of 2008, it should figure out what allowed the community to stay steady last year.


“There’s always a risk of expecting and looking for the worst, and we held our ground in the last set of data,” she said. “I think we should be happy about that and continue to look for ways we can serve the families that live in poverty now.”


How does Rock County compare?

Rock County ranks even with the state when it comes to poverty numbers. The American Community Survey says 10.8 percent of Wisconsinites lived in poverty in 2007, compared to 10.7 percent of Rock County residents.


But the county’s poverty numbers are slightly higher than those of its neighbors. People in poverty accounted for 6.3 percent of Jefferson County residents and 9.5 percent of Walworth County residents in 2007. Both counties saw a drop in poverty last year.


Dane County has drawn even with Rock County, with 10.9 percent of residents living in poverty in 2007. That’s up slightly from 10 percent in 2006.



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