The Census Bureau has found that if college students who live off campus weren’t counted, poverty rates would be significantly lower in towns and cities with large student populations, and the national poverty rate were drop as well.
Following are poverty rates in South Carolina’s largest college towns and what they would be if off-campus students were not counted:
Charleston: 20.5, 16.7
Columbia: 24.3, 20.6
Pickens County: 18.8, 15
In South Carolina that means Charleston, Columbia and Pickens County — home of Clemson University — would see significant changes in their poverty rates. In big public university towns like Athens, Ga., and Gainesville, Fla., poverty rates would plunge.
Go to postandcourier.com to read the census report.
Of course, there were still be just as many poor people, but poverty statistics apparently get inflated by off-campus students.
Clemson Area Chamber of Commerce Director David Lane said he already thought the poverty rates were “kind of bogus” because some students are counted as impoverished households.
“You’re talking about income, and many of them have access to income, and have a lot of discretionary funds,” Lane said.
College students aren’t counted in poverty statistics if they live in college housing, and if they live at home the Census Bureau looks at the family’s income and not just the student’s. But nationwide, 25 percent of college students live off campus and not with their families, and they are counted as households by the Census Bureau.
“We wrote the report because we get so many phone calls about this,” said Trudi Renwick, who oversees the Census Bureau branch responsible for processing, analyzing and publishing poverty estimates.
Some towns have even paid for additional census reports, or commissioned their own, apparently in an effort to show that poverty is not as bad in those towns as it appears.
College students may come from families that are wealthy or poor, but living on their own, they tend to have poverty-level incomes because they are in school and typically not working full-time.
In Clarke County, Ga., home of University of Georgia’s huge campus in Athens, the poverty rate would still be shockingly high if off-campus students were not counted, but it would be a poverty rate of 27 percent rather than the official rate of nearly 39 percent.
“I think around here the reaction was ‘yep, we knew that’,” said Jeff Montgomery, Athens-Clark County Unified Government spokesman. “When you include 32,000 students in a population of 116,000 you know there’s an effect.”
“We still know that there are challenges, whether (the poverty rate) is in the 30s or the 20s,” he said. “There’s still the same level of need.”
The Census Bureau has no plan to change the way poverty rates are calculated, and the study will not change the funding of anti-poverty programs.
“Funding is done on the official poverty rate, which includes students,” Renwick said. “But I would imagine an urban planner would be interested in knowing the poverty in a city, and how much is attributed to students.”
South Carolina includes three of the 105 large counties nationwide, with populations of 100,000 or more, that would see significant changes in poverty rates if college students weren’t counted.
“The change in the poverty rates after excluding off-campus college students ranged from 11.7 percentage points in Monroe County, Indiana to 0.6 percentage point in Maricopa County, Arizona,” according to the report by Alemayehu Bishaw of the Census Bureau.
In the city of Charleston, the census report estimates the poverty rate would drop from 20.5 percent — more than one out of five households — to 16.7 percent. The change would be similar in the city of Columbia and in Pickens County.
“If it’s not affecting our funding, it’s good to know and interesting to know, but we would be more interested in things that would help better serve our citizens,” said Charleston’s Planning Division Director Christopher Morgan.
“We are well aware of the neighborhoods that have a heavy student population,” he said. “Those are the places that everybody who lives in Charleston knows.”
The census report concluded that while off-campus college students don’t have a large impact on statewide poverty statistics, “at finer levels of geography there are counties and places where the inclusion of off-campus college students has a stronger impact on poverty rates. For some purposes, state and local planners may want to consider using an alternative poverty measure that excludes these students.”
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.