Shelters don’t see Iowa’s decrease in poverty

Rebecca Carton

A recent census has shown that although poverty is decreasing in Iowa, local shelters have not felt the shift.

Median household income has increased in the past year, while poverty rates have decreased. Iowa is also one of five states with the lowest proportion of the population living without health insurance, according to the 2005-06 census.

The census revealed that median household incomes across the nation have increased to $48,200. Iowa’s incomes were comparable to the national average of $48,075, up from $47,170 in the 2004-2005 census.

According to the census, the national poverty rate declined to 12.3 percent. This is the first time the poverty rate has declined in 10 years. The poverty rate in Iowa for 2005-06 was 10.8 percent, down from 11.1 percent in the previous census.

At the county level, Story County was 18.6 percent below poverty level, while the median household income was $43,326.

Nevertheless, local homeless shelters do not always follow the trends the estimates indicate.

The Emergency Residence Project, 225 S. Kellogg Ave., is a homeless center offering temporary shelter to families since 1985. Other services include an apartment complex located next door to the center from which transitional housing units are rented. Families in transitional housing pay rent based on their income in the hopes that they will someday “transition” into permanent housing.

The project also sets aside funds to aid families who are struggling to make their rent or rent an apartment.

While the census numbers indicate that poverty levels are decreasing, Troy Jansen, assistant director of the Emergency Residence Project, said the center is seeing an increase in applicants.

“We’ve had steady increases every year. You would think it’s the same people every month or year, but we only help a family one time every year. It’s different people,” Jansen said.

Erik Goodale, day manager of Rosedale Shelter, 703 Burnett Ave., said he is unable to tell whether the number of people served through the Rosedale Shelter is decreasing or increasing.

“It’s more that the population dynamics has changed,” he said.

Even though the census data does not reflect the Emergency Residence Project’s increase in services, Jansen still believes the data is important.

“It’s important to get that information out there in discussion,” he said.

“We haven’t seen a big upswing in improvement. We still see a lot of working families struggling. They have employment, but it’s under employment for their needs. They’re not making enough.”

Goodale said the census reports are good indicators of improvement but not always helpful for those in need.

“In the sense for communities, it would indicate that you’re doing something right by working to reduce poverty,” he said. “If you’re an individual in poverty it doesn’t matter to you whether the poverty rate is at 10 or 20 percent because you’re still in poverty.”

Peter Orazem, university professor of economics, said the numbers may be more politically important than accurate.

“They are politically important right now because one party or the other wants to make a case that the economy is either doing well or doing badly,” Orazem said. “In this way, very modest changes can be overblown politically.”

Orazem believes statistics on poverty are not always accurate because of an outdated system of measurement.

“Poverty rate is an odd number; it’s not a very well-defined measure. It’s based on a 1955 estimate of the amount of money that is required for a family of four to have a nutritionally balanced lifestyle, multiplied by three and adjusted for inflation,” Orazem said.

Orazem said such estimates often don’t incorporate food stamps, housing subsidies, transfers of income or the lower taxes paid by the poor.

“It exaggerates the number from being out of context,” he said.

The census estimates also report that the state of Iowa, along with Minnesota, Maine, Hawaii and Wisconsin, was in a statistical tie for the lowest percentage of people without health insurance. Only 9.3 percent of Iowans did not have health insurance from 2004 to 2006. At the national level, however, the number of people without health insurance rose to 47 million.

Ninety-one percent of Iowans have health insurance coverage. Orazem believes this is a positive aspect of living in Iowa.

“Nationally, 15 to 16 percent of the population doesn’t have health insurance. In Iowa, that number is less than 10 percent. We’ve been able to do better in terms of access of health insurance,” he said. “That’s a positive.”