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Census: Incomes increasing, poverty declining

Fewer Miami Valley residents lived in poverty in 2015 than the year before as Ohio and the nation continue to emerge from recession.

The poverty rate in Montgomery County declined last year for the first time since before the Great Recession, according to data released this week from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The county’s poverty rate of 17.9 percent last year was its lowest since 2010.

The city of Dayton’s poverty rate was 32.5 percent in 2015. While not down to pre-recession levels, that’s a significant decrease from 36.9 percent in 2014.

“That’s exciting. That’s tied to real people being better off,” said Richard Stock, economics professor at the University of Dayton. “That fits with what we’ve seen with respect to the job recovery that started to occur over the course of 2015.”

Not surprisingly, median household incomes also increased locally and nationally.

In fact, 39 states saw an increase in income and 23 saw a decrease in poverty rates between 2014 and 2015, according to the census survey.

Median household income in the United States increased by 5.2 percent to $56,516 in 2015 — the first increase since 2007 — according to the Census’ Current Population Survey.

A separate measure from the American Community Survey, the CPS gives a more accurate national picture while the ACS measures all communities with at least 65,000 people.

Ohio’s median household income increased by 4 percent in 2015 to $51,075.

While the news is encouraging, the median U.S. household still earns 1.6 percent less than it did in 2007, before the recession struck.

In Dayton, the median household income for 2015 was more than $30,000, up from $26,000 in 2014.

“This is the recovery. It seems surprising to people because it has taken so long and been so slow,” said Janice Kinghorn, a senior lecturer in economics at Miami University.

Last year, when the census survey revealed local poverty levels had steadily climbed since 2007 despite declining unemployment, experts blamed stagnated wages.

But there was enough wage and job growth in 2015 to lift household incomes and poverty in turn, experts said.

“We have seen some wage growth. It’s certainly well above inflation,” Kinghorn said. “When the labor market tightens we’d expect wage growth as well.”

While having nearly a third of Dayton’s population living in poverty is not something to celebrate, the fact that the numbers aren’t getting worse is encouraging, said Michelle Riley, CEO of Foodbank Inc., which serves Montgomery, Greene and Preble counties.

In 2011, the local food bank network was distributing just over 5 million pounds of food. Last year it distributed 9.8 million pounds.

“The question becomes with that kind of an increase in a five-year period, how would we keep up with it?” Riley said. “So we are really grateful to see the numbers just level out.”

Income increases are what’s really exciting to see, she said, because it means fewer working poor in need of services.

“That’s the jump we’re looking for,” Riley said. “That means that the wages are going up.”

According to a USDA food security report released last week, Ohio was tied for sixth nationally for highest rate of food insecurity at 16.1 percent.

“Fourteen-point-eight percent of Ohioans are still living in poverty,” said Joree Novotny, director of communications for the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. “There’s still a really high percentage of folks that are living paycheck to paycheck.”

Making enough to climb above the federal poverty level is a good step, Novotny said, but it’s not the final benchmark to look at because families making 200 percent of that level still qualify for food assistance.

Kinghorn said there are other details revealed in the 2015 census survey that are encouraging for the future.

“The gains at the bottom are larger than the top and that’s a rare piece of good news,” in terms of flattening out income inequality, she said.

She also noted that poverty rates have fallen across all racial and ethnic lines.

Overall, these improvements seem to be an indication of a continued recovery and not just a fluke, Kinghorn said.

“The middle class still has a long way to go … but finally we see some evidence that maybe the direction has turned.”

Stock also said he expects this trend to continue.

“You cannot go into a fast food restaurant without seeing the prominent ‘we are hiring’ signs,” he said. “That’s sort of a best indication of the fact that there are starting to be some higher-wage jobs out there.”

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