Census data shows poverty rate up

Organizations providing services to low-income community members aren't surprised local poverty rates have worsened in the last 10 years.

U.S. Census Bureau data released Monday shows the poverty rate in Bennington County last year stood at 12.3 percent, or 4,200 people - the most recent figures available. This represents a 1.6 percentage point increase over 2007 data, which in the past decade peaked at 15.1 percent in 2013.

In Windham County, last year's rate was 11.6 percent, or 4,800 people, from 10.7 percent in 2007. Its rate over the last 10 years hit a high of 14.7 percent in 2012.

Both counties' latest poverty rates are lower than the U.S. rate of 13.4 percent yet higher than Vermont's 10.8. The rates are based on the median household income in each geographic location.

"These statistics don't surprise me," said Sue Andrews, executive director of the Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services, a 45-year-old nonprofit group that provides food, medical services and financial assistance to people in poverty.

"This is why we're here, and we're doing everything we can to try to make things a little bit better for people who are living under such circumstances," she said.

A significant portion of impoverished people in Bennington and Windham counties are folks older than 65, retired and living on a fixed social security income; adults with disabilities who rely on benefits; and people under 18.

According to the latest Census Bureau figures, 16.8 percent of children in Bennington County live in poverty. This translates into some 1,100 children.

The figure is 15.3 percent in Windham County, also around 1,100 children.

Bennington County has seen its population continually shrink because of outward migration, Andrews said, making the growing poverty incidence within a smaller group more notable.

Orleans County, in northern Vermont, posted the state's highest 2017 poverty rate at 15.2 percent. The lowest, in northwestern Grand Isle County, was 8.2.

The Census Bureau, which has been releasing poverty data annually since 1993, measures household income by assessing factors such as a family's pre-tax earnings, unemployment compensation, retirement income, alimony and child support. It doesn't include tax credits or non-cash benefits like food stamps.

Factors that contribute to poverty, nonprofit groups said, include low wages, fewer full-time jobs that also provide health care coverage, as well as a lack of good-quality, affordable housing.

"You would expect with the economy improving that poverty rates would be going down, but that's not the case," said Becky Himlin, director of planning and development for Southeastern Vermont Community Action, a Westminster nonprofit group that works to battle poverty.

According to the Pew Research Center, after adjusting for inflation, today's average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power it did in 1978, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then.

Himlin hears from clients that they can't find jobs that pay a livable wage, and they can't find housing that is affordable, leading to continued financial distress.

"Vermont is somewhere between fifth and sixth-worse in the nation for housing costs versus wages," she said. "It's a serious challenge."

The Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, which provides shelter to homeless men, women and families, is serving more and more people every year, said its executive director Chris Oldham.

Last year, he said, the nonprofit organization provided shelter to 230 homeless people - a number they're on track to surpass this year.

"Bennington is fortunate enough to have so many people helping to alleviate the burden that comes with living in poverty," Oldham said, "but I am afraid the need in our community outpaces the resources available."

Andrews, who believes in a strong social-safety net, said the challenge for communities is to establish a more equitable distribution of income and wealth; otherwise, the United States' poverty situation will only get worse as a greater proportion of jobs becomes automated.

"I think that we, as a country, have plenty of money to see to it that people live in decent circumstances," she said.

Nationwide, the wealthiest county is Loudoun in Virginia with only a 3 percent poverty rate. The most impoverished, with 56.7 percent, is Ziebach County, S.D.

Bob Audette of the Brattleboro Reformer contributed to this story.

Tiffany Tan can be reached at ttan@benningtonbanner.com, @tiffgtan at Twitter and 802-447-7567 ext. 122.


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