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Poverty in Mecklenburg 

Good News, Bad News

First, the good news. Today's poor in Mecklenburg County are living far better than they did 30 years ago, according to a report to county commissioners last week. Adjusted for inflation, expenditures by the poorest 15 percent of the population are about equal to those of the median American household in the 1970s. "When thinking about poverty, many envision being destitute," said Herb Petro, data and research manager for the Department of Social Services. "Relative poverty is a reflection of the current standard of living."

The federal poverty income threshold for a family of four is $18,660 a year.

In the Charlotte region, nearly half of the families who live below poverty own a home. The typical home, according to the report, has three bedrooms, two bathrooms and is about 1,400 square feet. Some 97 percent own one or more televisions, and 80 percent have a VCR or DVD player.

The report shattered other stereotypes as well. Contrary to popular belief, few people remain at or below the poverty level for long periods of time. More than half of all poverty "spells," or the time people spend below the poverty line, last less than four months. Only about two percent of the population lives in poverty for four years or more.

Now, for the bad news. County commissioners learned last week that according to some measurements, poverty appears to be increasing in Mecklenburg County. In the past, say social services officials, food stamp cases usually begin to decline within two years of the end of a recession. Instead, the opposite is happening. Despite the economic recovery, the number of food stamp cases they're handling has spiked to record levels in recent months.

Social Services officials say they aren't yet sure why, but that they are concerned about the local trend. "Food stamps are a barometer for us of where the economy is heading," said Diana Tini, Director of the Economic Services Division of the Department of Social Services.

Petro says there may be several reasons for this, chief among them a large in-migration of under-educated Hispanic workers that is increasing competition for low-skilled jobs.

"There continues to be a perception that there are a lot of jobs in the Charlotte area," says Petro. But that perception, which once was largely true, may no longer match reality, at least for low-skilled jobs because of a large influx of unskilled workers.

"Many of them are undocumented or illegal," said Petro. "They are coming here looking for better economic opportunities. The ones we see at social services have lower levels of education. If you have a higher supply of labor and a lower number of jobs, that in turn increases the unemployment rate among that segment of the population."

The trend is hurting both recent immigrants and native Charlotteans who with low-education levels who are now increasingly finding it difficult to find a job. Further complicated matters the fact that many of those who move here seeking work arrive here without a job, said Petro. Their money quickly runs out while they search in an increasingly tight low-skilled job market. As a result, more than a sixth of those who now apply for public assistance programs in this county have moved here in the last 90 days.

That has led to dramatic differences in the unemployment rate in Mecklenburg County at different education levels.

Nationwide, about 2.8 percent of those without a high school diploma are unemployed. In Mecklenburg County, four percent are. For those with college degrees, unemployment is one percent in Mecklenburg County, the same as it is nationally.

Other low-skilled workers who do find employment are still having a tough time making ends meet. The percentage of those with jobs who still have incomes low enough to qualify for food stamps has risen in recent years. In 2002, about 25 percent of those who received food stamps were employed. Today, 31 percent earn income.

The competition for lower-skilled jobs is also affecting Medicaid costs, which rose by 11 percent last year, including at least $7 million for undocumented residents.

Medicaid costs have been rising rapidly here, and across the country, due to both rising medical costs and an increase in the number of people served, DSS officials told the commissioners.

If caseloads go up, both for Medicaid and food stamps, there is a concern for the county budget because it is going to require more funds, said Petro. Though the food stamp program is federally funded, the county pays the cost of administering it, so a spike in cases means a higher bill for the county. The state and federal government covers most of the $444 million annual cost of Medicaid in Mecklenburg County. The county's share is about $24 million.

Other interesting statistics the commissioners heard last week:

¨ As of January, about 14 percent of county residents, or 106,484 people, were receiving public assistance from at least one source.

¨ A third of the children in Mecklenburg County are currently on at least one public assistance program.

¨ Since 1999, the number of adults with no health insurance has spiked from 11 percent to 17 percent. The percentage of uninsured children rose from 8 percent to 10 percent.

¨ The three age groups with the highest poverty levels are young people between the ages of 18 and 24, 18 percent of whom live below the federal poverty level of $18,660 a year. In Mecklenburg County, 12 percent of people over 75 and 13 percent of children six to 11 live below the poverty line.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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