Fewer in Georgia in poverty, at least on paper

AJC data specialist John Perry contributed to this report.


Fewer people are living below the poverty line in Georgia and metro Atlanta. To explore this, the AJC spoke to experts, service providers, government officials and people struggling to get by. It also reviewed years of data on poverty rates, food stamps, assistance for needy families and other programs.

By the Numbers

Several government indicators show an improvement in poverty in Georgia and metro Atlanta.

1. An estimated 50,500 fewer Georgians are living below the poverty line since 2012. Georgia’s poverty rate dipped from 19.2 percent in 2012 to 18.3 in 2014.

2. Metro Atlanta saw a decrease of tens of thousands of people living below the poverty line. Metro’s poverty rate dropped to 15.5 percent from 16.6 in that period.

3. Fewer Georgians are receiving food stamps, a drop of 35,752 households, or 4 percent, between 2014 and 2015.

4. Metro Atlanta saw a decrease of 13,600 food stamp households, or 4.5 percent, from 2013 to 2014.

5. The number of Georgia households receiving another government assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, decreased by 1,730 cases, or 12 percent, from 2014 to 2015.

6. Metro Atlanta has 30,000 more poor people working year-round in 2014 compared to 2010.

Note: Some analysts suspect that some of the decreases in food stamps and TANF cases may be due to the state’s problems in registering people and managing the programs.

Sources: U.S. Census, Atlanta Regional Commission, state Department of Human Services, Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

The income poverty thresholds for families

Household size/ Poverty line income

1 $12,071

2 $15,379

3 $18,850

4 $24.230

5 $28,695

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

The AJC examined poverty rates in the September release of the U.S. Census American Community Survey One-Year Estimates. These estimates are based on population surveys done throughout the year. While the AJC focused on the period of 2012 to 2014, it should be noted that the census expanded the definition of metro Atlanta in 2013 to include Morgan County. Census officials said the addition did not significantly affect the poverty rates.

In addition, census officials warned against focusing too much attention on the poverty estimates for individual counties, as that level of sampling had wide margins of error.

In addition, the AJC examined several years of data regarding the number of Georgians collecting food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It should be noted that some analysts suspect that some of the downward trend in these figures may be due to problems at the state Department of Human Services with registering and managing people in these programs.

The costs of living in metro Atlanta

This is for a family of two adults and one child

HOUSING $10,752

FOOD $7,418

CHILD CARE $6,072

Transportation $6,991

HEALTH CARE $8,226

* OTHER NECESSITIES $8,776

TAXES $7,481

Annual Total $55,716

* Includes apparel, entertainment, personal care expenses, household furnishings and supplies, among others.

Source: Economic Policy Institute

When the Great Recession finished kicking Nicholas Clay’s butt, the former fence-installer was broke, unemployed and living with his wife and three kids in a pickup truck.

That meant days of looking for work while his wife and kids asked people for money in the parking lot of the Target in Flowery Branch. Nights were spent at a local campsite, the kids sleeping in the truck.

About two years ago, the family started receiving help from the Norcross Cooperative Ministry. And three months ago, the debt counseling, food donations and rent assistance paid off when Clay landed a job in construction. The family is now renting in Lilburn.

“We’ve got food in the refrigerator, the bills are paid and the kids have nice clothes,” said Clay, 35. “It’s a blessing.”

The Clay family’s comeback reflects an important moment for the poor in Georgia. For the first time since the economic downturn, fewer people are living below the poverty line in both Georgia and metro Atlanta. In addition, more of the poor have jobs, and fewer are receiving food stamps, according to an analysis of data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Recently released U.S. Census figures show that Georgia has an estimated 50,500 fewer people living below the poverty line since 2012, including tens of thousands in metro Atlanta.

That actually represents about a 1 percent drop in the poverty rate - but several charity leaders said they can’t see it. They say they see just as much need, if not more.

Still, the figures represent the first steady and “statistically significant” drop in poverty for both Georgia and metro Atlanta following the worst days of the economic downtown, according to the census. The improvement is relatively small but significant, if only for what it is not: Another gut-punch of bad news, another increase in a state that had seen poverty rise since the recession.

The news comes as charities prepare for the holiday season, easily their busiest time of the year as they help struggling families pay heating bills and provide Christmas and Thanksgiving.

And it has analysts and charity officials struggling - at times arguing - over whether the numbers represent a statistical blip, the beginning of a historic reversal, or just a mistake.

For Nicholas Clay, the meaning is clear. It's a decent place to call home. It's smiles on his kids' faces. It's a paycheck in his pocket.

Hard to believe

This is a hectic time for Jamminese Miller. She has a stack of applications on her desk, each one a request for energy assistance. That's a fancy term for people needing money to keep the heat on. And as the days get colder, the stack grows.

Each application is a hard-luck story. It’s the disabled mother who’s behind on her bills for two months. It’s the husband waiting for unemployment benefits to kick in. It’s the freshly employed woman anticipating her first pay check.

From her desk in this converted A&P grocery store, the community support coordinator at Clayton County Community Services can’t see any improvement in poverty. Instead, she sees some 30 people a day come in for help paying their heat bill, and expects the number to rise as the thermometer drops. About one in every three is in financial crisis.

The Great Recession ran roughshod over many people’s lives in Georgia. People lost their jobs and homes, and many found themselves struggling with bankruptcy, foreclosure and long-term unemployment.

Georgia was among the hardest hit states. The state had been buoyed by a rapid rise in housing prices and construction, but when the bubble burst in 2007 the damage ripped through the state’s economy. As often happens in tough times, the poor - with less education, resources and savings - were hit harder and stayed down longer.

From Miller’s perspective, whatever improvement is occurring in poverty is just a drop in the bucket. If anything, she’s seeing more applications this year.

“In Clayton County, it hasn’t changed,” she said.

In Georgia, though, the poverty rate has dipped from 19.2 percent of the population in 2012 to 18.3 in 2014. Much of that decrease came in metro Atlanta, where it dropped to 15.5 percent from 16.6. The census defines metro Atlanta as a 29-county area.

The hope is that these census figures, coupled with a recent drop in food stamp recipients, show the nation’s rising economic waters finally reaching some of the neediest Georgians.

The post-recession economic recovery has been slow, but may be floating more boats, analysts say.

“The more years we separate ourselves from the Great Recession, the better things are going to get,” said Mike Carnathan, a researcher with the Atlanta Regional Commission.

But while he and other analysts praised the latest census figures, they weren’t about to herald a new bend in Georgia’s dire poverty narrative. They want to see what happens over the next few years.

“It’s a positive sign, but it’s not a trend,” said Georgia State University economics professor David Sjoquist.

Miller, for her part, knows her grant money will run out before she’s through with applications. There will be people she’ll have to reject, sending them off to other charities.

“But many of them are out of funds, or limited in the help they can give,” she said.

Poverty still rampant

Make no mistake, poverty remains a widespread problem in Georgia, the seventh poorest state in the country. Some 1.8 million people live below the poverty line. And the poverty rate remains above where it had been prior to the recession.

At the same time, the AJC found signs in several areas that indicate the poor are doing better, at least on paper.

  • Fewer Georgians are receiving food stamps, a drop of 35,752 households, or 4 percent, between 2014 and 2015, according to the state Department of Human Services.
  • Metro Atlanta itself saw a decrease of 13,600 food stamp households, or 4.5 percent, from 2013 to 2014, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission.
  • The number of Georgia households receiving another government assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, decreased by 1,730 cases, or 12 percent, between 2014 and 2015, according to DHS.
  • More of the poor are working. Metro Atlanta has 30,000 more poor people working year-round in 2014 compared to 2010, according to an GBPI analysis of census data.

These numbers come with caveats. Analysts suspect that some of the decreases in food stamps and TANF cases may be due to the state agency’s recurring problems with registering people and managing the programs.

In addition, many of the working poor still live below the poverty line, said Melissa Johnson, a policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. She believes more people are living on the economic borderline. Their lives may have improved enough to lift them above the poverty line, but they’re still financially stressed.

Some measures of need continue to rise in Georgia, such as the number of people on Medicaid. People can earn above the poverty line and still qualify for the government-sponsored health care.

Advocates for the poor say the poverty line is an unfairly low measure of economic distress. In the United States it stands at $15,379 for a family of two, and $24,230 for a family of four, according to census officials. That translates into $296 and $466 a week respectively, before taxes.

People need more than that to meet even basic needs, said Kyle Waide, president of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. He said the food bank has seen a steady rise in need since the recession. Last year it distributed 62 million pounds of food across metro Atlanta and North Georgia.

For many, a job alone won’t do the trick. After unemployment sent Nicholas Clay and his family into a financial spiral, Clay said the Norcross Cooperative Ministry helped with clothing, household budget classes and job-hunting seminars. They provided $200 a week to keep the family in an extended stay motel for six months.

These days, Clay sees the difference in his kids. Jonathan, whose 10, was devastated when he had to give up his pets during the family’s homelessness. Now they have a dog, two cats, and some birds and fish.

“He’s ecstatic,” Clay said. “It calms him and keeps him focused.”

Isabella, 11, loves music and art, but she couldn’t really explore that much living in a truck. Now she has her own room to play and practice her flute.

Andrew, 13, is a reader, which was hard to do by the light of a truck cabin light. Now he has a library down the street.

Clay also believes the improving economy and job market helped him.

“A year ago I was sending out 20 resumes a week to construction companies and not getting a call back,” he said. “Now I put in an application and they called back the next day.”

Better days

Fern Saint used to volunteer at North Fulton Community Charities, before she came there asking for help.

Saint had been a senior mortgage loan officer, so successful her bank gave her a free trip to Hawaii.

Then the Great Recession dropped on her life like a safe from the sky.

As the real estate market disintegrated, so did her job, and follow-up stints didn’t last. Saint and her daughter, Blair, ended up living in a cheap North Fulton rental. They learned how to make it on food stamps, surviving on a lot of Ramen noodles, bread and pasta.

The stress, at times, became overwhelming. Without health insurance, Saint stopped taking her blood pressure pills. Her pressure blew up and she became anemic.

“Emotionally you are always on edge,” she said.

Blair, a high-schooler at the time, kept the stress inside. She became more quiet. She lost interest in school and her grades plummeted.

Saint found herself back at the North Fulton charity, this time asking for help. The people there helped her with food, credit counseling and job-hunting. They tutored Blair.

In 2012, Saint, who is 55, landed a temp job in the construction loan department at a Sun Trust in Gainesville. She became full-time a year ago, and the family has upgraded to a rental home in Alpharetta. Blair, now 22, is in her third year of college.

North Fulton’s executive director Barbara Duffy said she’s seen a welcome slowdown in clients in the past few years.

“Jobs are opening up,” Duffy said.

Much of Georgia’s improvement in poverty occurred in five of the major counties of metro Atlanta - Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Clayton and Gwinnett, according to the census figures.

This may be a good sign considering that metro Atlanta had seen some of the biggest increases in suburban poverty in the country. As the recession worsened, more poor people moved out to the suburbs, grabbing jobs and housing where they could.

How much has poverty improved in these counties? Census officials cautioned against looking too closely at the figures for individual counties. In this analysis, released in September, those figures become less reliable and have higher margins of errors. Census officials felt comfortable saying metro Atlanta has seen a decrease of tens of thousands of people living below the poverty line.

For Saint, these days are filled with the lessons she learned going through hard times.

“I have a real appreciation for the dollar. A definite appreciation for my job,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be able to go out to work every day.”

Beyond that, she is volunteering again at the North Fulton charity.

“I needed a hand up,” Saint said. “I’ll never forget that.”