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Poverty? It's a college thing

College-student poverty inflates College Park poverty rate

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Published on: Wednesday, August 14, 2013

By Kayla Faria

The poverty rate in College Park is 30.7 percent. Or 8.8 percent. It depends on who you count in the “poverty universe.”

Poverty rates declined significantly in College Park, Prince George’s County, the District of Columbia, Maryland and 42 other U.S. states after college students living off campus without relatives were excluded from the 2009 to 2011 poverty figures, according to a Census report released Aug. 5.

Unlike college students living in dormitories or living with family members, the poverty status of the demographic is based on personal, rather than family, income. And more than half of U.S. college students living in nonfamily households off campus bring in below-poverty-level incomes. In Maryland, more than 540,000 of the state’s impoverished population are college students living off campus in nonfamily households.

“There’s certainly poverty in our community,” said College Park City Councilman Patrick Wojahn, District 1.

Although poverty rate adjustments were less than 1 percent in Maryland and Prince George’s County, the City of College Park’s poverty rate plummeted by more than 21 percent when the demographic was excluded.

“Basically what you’re saying is that the high poverty rate is attributable to the number of students,” Wojahn said. “That makes sense because a lot of students are not working full-time jobs. A lot of them make less than the poverty rate.”

A student living alone in an off-campus apartment would have to earn more than $11,490 to surpass Maryland’s poverty threshold, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Under the current federal poverty guidelines, more than 1,618 college students living in nonfamily households off campus in College Park are considered impoverished.

Home to the University of Maryland, College Park registered the 13th greatest change in poverty rates among all U.S. places with populations between 20,000 and 65,000 after the exclusion adjustment. Its unadjusted poverty rate is more than three times the rate of Prince George’s County, according to the data.

“There are counties and places where the inclusion of off-campus college students has a stronger impact on poverty rates,” Census statistician Alemayehu Bishaw said. “State and local planners may want to consider using an alternative poverty measure that excludes these students.”

But the councilman said implementing different ways to measure poverty is not in City Council’s hands.

“I don’t really think that’s up to us. I think that’s up to the administrators of different programs,” he said.

The way poverty is measured has not changed much since it was introduced in the 1960s, according to the Institute for Research on Poverty. The rate represents a population average and “does not really tell us who is well-off and who is worse off.”

Wojahn — who earned a part-time income below the poverty rate throughout college — said college students living in nonfamily households off campus should be included in the poverty rate, but “with an asterisk.”

Adam Hilmantel, a 20-year-old chemical engineering major at the University of Maryland, said the demographic should be included “but with the understanding that they’re specifically living here to, like, go to the college.” The commuter from Gaithersburg helps a graduate student conduct research — an unpaid, part-time gig for the summer.

“They’re paying their dues to the houses that are in the city,” he said of students living off-campus without family in College Park. “They’re a part of the community.”

Still, the rising senior does “not particularly” consider the demographic to be poor.

“They’re specifically choosing to live like around (and) close to the campus. They know what they’re getting into,” he said, referring to the high cost of living in nearby off-campus housing.

Of the nearly 490,000 Maryland college students, 22.8 percent lived in nonfamily households off campus — two times as many college students than those who lived in Maryland college housing.

When asked if counting the college student demographic as impoverished hurts the city’s capacity to offer resources or receive funding, the councilman focused on positive outcomes.

“Not necessarily,” Wojahn said. “I mean, in some ways, it might actually even help the city. Because there’s certain programs (like the Community Development Block Grant program) that only certain parts of the city are eligible for because (they have) a low average income.”

The block grant program funds development projects and services the “most vulnerable” communities — including Transforming Neighborhood Initiative areas — by creating jobs, retaining businesses and ensuring “decent affordable housing,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Its resources are allocated using a formula that accounts for the “extent of poverty” as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Among Census-designated places and cities in Maryland, only College Park, Towson and Salisbury registered statistically significant changes after the figures were adjusted. Salisbury’s poverty rate dropped 6.3 percent, while Towson’s rate fell 4.2 percent.

Poverty rate differences were less significant at the Maryland county level as only Wicomico and Prince George’s counties registered statistically significant changes. Wicomico County tallied a 2.6 percent drop in poverty. And the county featuring Maryland’s flagship campus and its oldest historically black university recorded a .9 percent decline in poverty.

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