Apr 22, 2022 - News

Drop in Georgia poverty rate might be misleading

Share of people with income below poverty level, by county
Data: American Community Survey; Map: Jared Whalen/Axios

Fewer Georgia residents are living in poverty than a decade ago, a new Census report shows, but experts caution the numbers don’t reflect how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the economic realities for families.

State of play: The latest numbers from the American Community Survey 2016-2020 five-year estimates reveal 14.3% of Georgia residents had incomes below the federal poverty line.

  • That’s down from 17.8% reported during the previous five-year estimate, 2011 to 2015.

That’s good, but: Ife Finch Floyd, an economic justice policy analyst at the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, tells Axios that people should be careful about putting too much stock in the ACS figures because they don't include the fallout from 2020 and beyond.

  • The pandemic, she says, “disrupted everything in our lives, and that included doing, really, an accurate count of people in the country and their economic circumstances.”
  • She’s been reviewing other data collected over the last two years that show people are having a hard time affording the essentials and are struggling with food insecurity.
  • “That's an indication that those lower poverty levels … may not be capturing the full story,” she said.

Reality check: Kyle Waide, president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which helps food banks distribute food across metro Atlanta and north Georgia, tells Axios that his nonprofit saw demand for food assistance increase as much as 40% during the height of the pandemic.

  • The numbers dropped off in 2021, but they're creeping back up again because of inflation, Waide said.
  • “We’ve never really gotten back down to the level we were at prior to the pandemic,” he said. “Until some of this inflationary pressure is resolved, we’re just going to have a lot of the families we serve really experiencing higher levels of need, and we think that’s going to be true throughout the rest of this year.”

By the numbers: In the five-county metro Atlanta region, Cobb had the lowest poverty rate at 8.6% while Clayton reported the highest at 16.6%.

  • Poverty rates in Georgia are higher in central and South Georgia, Census bureau data shows.
  • Jenkins County, in southeast Georgia between Augusta and Statesboro, had a 34.5% poverty rate, the highest in the state.

Zoom out: Across the country, 12.6% of people said their incomes fell below the poverty line between 2016 and 2020. That’s an improvement from 15.5% reported during the previous five-year survey.

  • The survey notes that poverty dropped in 49 states between the two time periods.

The bottom line: While it appears we are in an economic rebound from the pandemic, inflation is pushing prices for some items beyond what is affordable for many Americans.

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