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Census data show improved poverty rate in Pennsylvania

Poverty rates improved modestly across most of the Pittsburgh region in 2014, according to new census data, as many households appeared to benefit from an ongoing, modest economic recovery.

The seven-county metropolitan area’s poverty rate of 12.4 percent last year, compared to 12.8 percent in 2013, is one factoid among wide-ranging American Community Survey data the U.S. Census Bureau is releasing to the public today. The rate has fluctuated between 12 percent and 12.8 percent for the past five years, consistently much better than national rates.

Most parts of the region saw reduced poverty rates in 2014, with Beaver and Fayette counties and the city of Pittsburgh being exceptions.

In an oddity of statistical record-keeping, two federal poverty rates are reported for 2014. Using the ACS methodology from an annual survey of 3.5 million households provides a national rate of 15.5 percent in 2014, improved from 15.8 percent. But the federal government uses its alternative, longer-running Current Population Survey to identify an official poverty rate for 2014 of 14.8 percent, which it said represented no meaningful difference from a year earlier.

In either case, local poverty rates continue to be better. Carol De Vita, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who has researched the Pittsburgh region’s poverty trends, said that’s in part because of a successful transition to an “eds and meds” economy that has created jobs and income to help residents exceed the poverty threshold (about $24,000 for a family of four).

She noted that higher poverty rates are also generally found in rural areas and places with a higher percentage of minorities than is the case around Pittsburgh.

Officials representing human service agencies in the area had mixed opinions on whether the improved numbers are borne out by any evidence that fewer people are in dire financial need than a few years ago.

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Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, an advocacy group, acknowledged there has been a reduction of about 5,000 in the number of Allegheny County residents receiving food stamps since a peak of more than 165,000 in early 2012. The demand for such help has been relatively stable in 2015 rather than increasing or declining, he said.

“What census numbers don’t reflect is how fluid people’s experiences are,” Mr. Regal said. “You can say people were poor last year and now they’re not poor and we lifted them out of poverty, but the fact is there’s always a bunch of people becoming poor and others becoming unpoor, and people are experiencing crises … when already living right at the margin.”

Robert Nelkin, president of United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, said calls to the agency’s 211 line for help with threatened evictions and utility shutoffs and to request help obtaining food and other necessities keeps increasing, so he’s wary of survey numbers citing economic improvement on the lower end.

“There are a lot of people who were doing OK, and then something happened in their life — loss of a job or work hours, health care expenses, an automobile accident, all these unexpected things — and if they have no savings, no reserves, no support system, they suddenly need somewhere to turn,” Mr. Nelkin said.

The data suggested things were turning for the better for low-income people in Allegheny County outside of Pittsburgh and in Armstrong, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

But the city of Pittsburgh’s reported poverty rate climbed from 22.7 percent to 23.8 percent; Fayette County’s from 19.3 to 20.5 percent; and Beaver County’s from 10.6 to 11.4 percent.

Michael Rubino, executive director of United Way of Beaver County, said there’s some consolation that the county’s rate is still well below that of both the nation and region, possibly because of its high proportion of elderly, with their reliable retirement incomes.

Local food banks reported increasing demand in the recent past, he said, so the higher poverty rate in 2014 would make some sense, but he believes conditions have been stable this year instead of worsening.

This article was written by Gary Rotstein from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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