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Poverty on rise in F-M, census figures show

Shawn Barnett flung bags full of groceries and sweet corn into the back of his van Tuesday on his second trip ever to the Emergency Food Pantry in north Fargo.

His full-time job delivering furniture usually pays enough to cover the bills. But the 22-year-old husband and father of two said he needs a little help every now and then to cover the rising costs of gas, food and other basics.

"We had another baby. It's getting tighter. Everything's going up," he said.

According to census figures released Tuesday, it appears things are getting tougher financially for a greater percentage of people in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area.

The estimated poverty rate in the metropolitan statistical area, which consists of Cass and Clay counties, jumped from 10.1 percent in 2006 to 13.4 percent last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey.

Because the estimates come from a relatively small sample size and the margins of error allow the percentages to just barely overlap, one can't say with statistical certainty that the poverty rate has risen, but it appears that it has, said Richard Rathge, North Dakota's state demographer.

If local food shelves are any sort of barometer, financial struggles may be on the rise.

The Great Plains Food Bank in Fargo, which serves all of Cass and Clay counties, saw the number of food shelf visits increase 5.2 percent from 2006 to 2007, from 55,359 to 58,224, director Steve Sellent said. Visits are on pace for about a 5 percent increase this year.

"I think we attribute a lot of it to rising costs, especially basics - food, gas and utilities," he said. "We're seeing a lot of people who've never used the services before but just can't make ends meet."

The Emergency Food Pantry handed out 10,000 more pounds of food last month than in July 2007, coordinator Linda Clark said. The pantry has been fortunate to receive donated fruits and vegetables from local growers, she said.

Many families find themselves in a financial pinch after spending money on back-to-school supplies and clothes, Clark said.

"There's a lot of people who need food, and it's mainly because of everything that's hitting them at the same time," she said.

Duke Schempp, executive director of the Moorhead-based People Escaping Poverty Project, wasn't surprised by the apparent increase in the poverty rate, which tends to rise as the cost of living outpaces wage hikes, he said.

"Even with the increase in minimum wage, there really hasn't been an increase when it comes to the working poor," he said.

The news is especially bad because social programs and human services for the poor have steadily dwindled since the 1990s, Schempp said.

"The safety net has been eroded to the poorest of the poor, so when people hit the poverty level, there's nothing there for them," he said.

The 2007 survey determined the poverty status of 183,209 people in the metro area. It didn't include institutionalized people, those living in military group quarters and college dorms and unrelated individuals younger than age 15.

The Census Bureau determines who's in poverty by using a set of income thresholds that vary by family size and makeup. For example, the poverty threshold for a family of three with one child under younger than age 18 was $16,425 last year.

While the poverty rate appears to be up, the metro area's median income was down in the latest survey, from $46,188 in 2006 to $44,551 in 2007. But the margin of error of $2,906 in the 2007 figure makes the decrease statistically insignificant.

Brian Walters, executive director of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp., said he'd be surprised if median income dropped during the two-year span, given healthy job and wage growth in the metro.

"That doesn't seem likely that it went down like that," he said, adding only the 10-year census provides a true income snapshot.

The average annual wage in Cass County last year was $36,395, a 5.1 percent increase over 2006, said Marty Aas, customer service area manager for Job Service North Dakota in Fargo.

Given high crop prices and a relatively strong economy locally, "I don't know why that would be different," he said of the census estimate.

Rathge, the state demographer, pointed out that among people age 25 and older, those with a bachelor's degree or higher level of education were far less likely to be in poverty than those who didn't graduate from high school - 2.4 percent compared with 16.3 percent in the metro area.

As local students return to school this week, "That's an extremely important message when we talk about poverty," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528