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New Census data says plenty of poverty, low incomes in North Dakota, Grand Forks

Despite an economy that has performed better than much of the country, nearly a third of North Dakotans are considered poor or low-income, a figure that's slightly higher in Grand Forks, according to new data from the U.S. Census.

Mom, 18, and baby girl in Texas
Zenobia Bechtol, 18, and her seven-month-old baby girl Cassandra, live in the dining room of her mother's apartment in Austin, Texas, Friday, Dec. 14, 2011, after Bechtol and her boyfriend were evicted from their apartment after he lost his job. Squeezed by rising living costs, a record number of Americans _ 1 in 2 _ have now fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low-income. The latest census data paint a bleak picture of a shrinking middle class amid persistently high ...

Despite an economy that has performed better than much of the country, nearly a third of North Dakotans are considered poor or low-income, a figure that's slightly higher in Grand Forks, according to new data from the U.S. Census.

The same data, gathered in 2010, showed that nearly half of Americans fall into those categories.

"There's a bit of a contradiction that I think some people grapple with," Richard Rathge, director of the State Data Center, said of the state data.

Economic growth has benefited some areas and some occupations more than others, he said.

"Just because things are going well in our state, it doesn't mean, unfortunately, that there isn't poverty," said Pat Berger, president of United Way of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Area.


Her organization has been sounding the alarm about growing needs for several years, for example, releasing a 2007 study that found wages lagging behind living expenses, even for the middle class.

The new data provides a "deeper understanding of economic conditions" than before, the Census said, by taking into account medical, commuting and other living expenses. In doing so, the data expanded the number of Americans in the low-income category.

Low-income, as a technical term, is different than actual poverty. Those below the poverty line are considered poor. A low income is one that's between 100 and 199 percent of poverty level.

The poverty line is used in assessing eligibility for government programs. A low-income designation is not.

High rates

According to the Census data, 13 percent of North Dakotans are poor and 29.2 percent are poor or have low incomes.

Long-standing pockets of poverty remain on the state's Indian reservations, Rathge said, and the high-paying jobs generated by the oil and gas industry are only in the western half of the state and only available to those with the skills to qualify for them.

In the oil and gas counties, rising incomes have produced inflation that means low incomes that buy less for those not getting big paychecks, according to Rathge.


"Housing is a good case in point," he said, citing soaring housing prices in western North Dakota. "It's kind of that double whammy for them."

Among the state's major metro areas, the Grand Forks area has larger population of poor and low-income residents, with 14.4 percent at or below the poverty line and 32.7 percent that are poor or low-income.

In the Bismarck area, it's 9.5 percent poor and 23.7 percent poor or low-income.

In the Fargo area, it's 12.7 percent poor and 28.2 percent poor or low-income.

In the Minot area, which benefits significantly from the state's oil boom, it's 14.6 percent poor and 29.3 percent poor or low-income.

In Minnesota, which has higher unemployment rate than North Dakota, it's 11.6 percent poor and 27.5 percent poor or low-income.

Nationwide, it's 15.9 percent poor and 48 percent poor or low-income.

Remaining needs


Grand Forks' larger share of poverty and low incomes could be attributed to managerial and manufacturing jobs making up a smaller part of the local job market, according to Rathge.

"I'm seeing some important differences in occupations, for example, management versus sales," he said.

Those differences show up in a variety of areas.

United Way is waiting for funding requests from organizations it works with, and Berger said she is expecting to see more needs. "All of them have seen increases," she said. "I don't know what it's going to be, but I have a feeling that it's going to be more."

During the recently completed Toys for Tots charity drive, United Way served 271 families compared to 196 last year.

Other local sources of assistance for the poor have not seen numbers decline.

According to Grand Forks Public Schools, 38 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches. That is up slightly from 37.5 percent in November 2009 and 31 percent in November 2006.

Public assistance programs administrated by Grand Forks County showed slight changes.


There were 420 people in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, up from 405 in 2010. There were 1,425 households in November in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, compared to 1,369 last year. However, recipients of food stamps were down slightly, from 6,057 last November to 6,051 this year, according to data from Grand Forks County Social Services.

The Grand Forks Housing Authority has more than 2,000 units that house around 5,000 people a night and a waiting list of 765 families, according to Emily Wright, the authority's executive administrator.

"When you think of that as 10 percent of population, that's a big deal," she said.

Renters receiving housing assistance pay rents based on a percentage of their incomes, and Wright said the authority's share of each unit's rent has been increasing.

"Either their incomes have gone down, or the market has raised its rates," she said.

Reach Bjorke at (701) 780-1117; (800) 477-6572, ext. 117; or send e-mail to cbjorke@gfherald.com . The AP contributed to this story.

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