Poverty in Nebraska stays constant, while incomes rise

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September 21st, 2012

Lincoln, NE – New data from the United States Census Bureau paints two different pictures of economic health for Nebraska’s population.

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Overall household income in the state hit record levels and remained above the national average. At the same time, the levels of poverty remain a stubborn concern, according to new numbers released this week. The number of people living in poverty increased slightly, but at a slower rate than the previous five years.

Nebraska was a bright spot in the Census Bureau’s national survey of income and poverty. The 2011 American Community Survey revealed the median household income in the state increased by more than $500 in one year, or 1.1 percent – from $49,770 in 2010 to $50,296 in 2011.

A mother and daughter select fresh produce during the food pantry organized by the Center for People in Need. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

David Drozd, research coordinator for the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha reviewed the data and noted that the state was among the nation’s leaders in real household incomes over the last two years.

“Nebraska’s growth in inflation adjusted income, again made the top ten among state’s the past year,” Drozd said. “That’s always a positive because we want to see incomes growing.”

In his analysis Drozd noted the real median income in the United States declined 1.3 percent from $51,144 in 2010 to $50,502 in 2011. Even with the income gains in Nebraska, the state’s median income in 2011 was not statistically different from the U.S. average.

Nebraska’s income gain ranked ninth best among the states. In the central plains, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming also placed in the top ten states for real income growth.

Other neighboring states did not match Nebraska’s gains in household income.

“While Nebraska was growing one percent in our real income, Iowa was able to eke out a gain (of only 0.1 percent) and Kansas actually lost a percentage and a half” Drozd said. Colorado and Missouri also saw slight drops in income level.

Food stamp applicants sign up for benefits. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

According to Drozd’s analysis, Nebraska’s income gains were driven by improvements in rural areas. He speculated that may be the result of higher commodity prices and “a relatively strong and profitable agricultural sector.

Income levels in the state’s rural areas saw an increase of 1.1 percent while larger communities posted a decline of -0.4 percent.

Noting that median income levels remain below pre-recession levels and the level of poverty is still higher than in 2008, Drozd said the state is still recovering from the sluggish economy.
“We have seen the recession’s impact,” Drozd said.

The poverty levels only changed slightly, according to the Census Bureau survey results.

The number of Nebraskans living below the poverty level increased from 12.9 in 2010 to 13.1 in 2011.
From 2008 to 2009 the poverty rate rose 1.5 percentage points; from 2009 to 2010, it rose 0.6 percentage points; and from 2010 to 2011, it only rose 0.2 percentage points. “Basically poverty is rising more slowly now than in the height of the recession,” Drozd wrote in his analysis of the data.

“We see that the rate is rising at a slower rate,” he told NET News, “which is good to see and perhaps that suggests that next year the poverty rate will actually decline.”

Stephanie, a 27 year-old single mother of two, seems to personify many of the trends indicated in the latest Nebraska census numbers. (Editor’s Note: Stephanie asked that her last name remain private.)

Her personal story of poverty began, in her own words, with a series of bad choices. She has been unable to escape the poverty shared by her parents, in part, because she dropped out school, got into unhealthy relationships, became a mother too young, and didn’t, until recently, push to improve her education and self-sufficiency.

“I’ve always wanted to do better,” Stephanie said. “Now, I am just to point where I am OK and I am trying to get off assistance, but I can’t seem to get off assistance.”

For the past year, she’s worked a few hours a week at the Center for People in Need, a charitable organization providing food, job training, and other support to people in and around Lincoln. The work she and many others do at the center is a federal government requirement to get any kind of public assistance.
For the two days a week she works she earns $40 supplemented with $360 in food stamps, but she said that “is not enough to cover the food.” Another $360 is provided through Aid to Dependent Children (ADC).
Add to that the $300 a month in rent for her family, plus the cost of maintaining a car and cell phone to make sure she can get to and stay in contact with work.

Stephanie, always in a race to make enough money to buy food and pay rent, said, “It’s tiring, because you want to do better for yourself (and) not live off the government for the rest of your life.”

For the past six years, the Center for People in Need surveyed its clients to get an idea of who the people are behind the numbers. More than 2,000 people, most at the poverty level, responded to most recent survey, conducted late last year. A report based on the data collected was released earlier this month.

The director of the center, Beatty Brasch, drew the same overall conclusion from her organization’s survey and the U.S. Census data.

“The good news is it’s not getting worse,” she said. “The very frustrating part is, it’s not getting any better.”

Among the highlights of the report:
 • 87% of the center’s clients are women.
 • 71% are United States citizens.
 • 61% had a household income of less than $1,000 a month.
 • 65% had four or more people living in the household.
 • 44% had a full-time job.

The fact that so many of the clients below the poverty level did have one or more jobs continues to surprise Brasch. The percentage of working poor in the Lincoln area appears to have grown over the past four years of the agency’s study.

“People are shocked,” Brasch said when they learn one out of five local families are living on $500 a month or less.

“They assume everyone is doing okay in Lincoln, Nebraska, that they are sharing the good life like they are, and it’s just not true.”

Living in poverty takes a toll on her clients in many ways, Brasch said: “It’s impossible to be a good parent doing anything but basic day-to-day survival.”

To get past the poverty line, Stephanie said she plans to “try harder and to just have a positive outlook.” She’s quick to tell others who find themselves in a similar situation “to do the best you can with whatever circumstances you have in your life.”

Stephanie is currently working towards completion of her GED and hopes that will help her get a job working more hours for more money.

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