If you believe the U.S. Census Bureau, Lawrence and Douglas County residents have been doing a stellar job of pulling themselves out of poverty lately.
The problem is, several social service providers say they don’t believe the U.S. Census Bureau.
The bureau on Tuesday released figures that estimate that about 23,000 Douglas County residents were below the federal poverty level in 2009 — a rate of 21.7 percent, which was the second highest of any county in Kansas. But then in 2010, the number of people in poverty dropped to about 16,000 people — a rate of 15.6 percent.
In other words, there are about 7,000 fewer people in poverty in Douglas County, despite an economy that continues to sputter. To some social service providers, those numbers don’t make sense.
“I haven’t seen an improvement. What I’ve seen are more people,” said Linda Lassen, program director at Penn House, which provides utility, food and clothing assistance to those in need. “I’m guessing that 20 percent of the people we’re helping are people we haven’t seen before. That is a big increase for us.”
Douglas County’s drop in the poverty rate runs counter to what has happened statewide. The poverty rate in Kansas rose to 13.5 percent in 2010, up from 13.2 percent in 2009. Compared to 2007 — before the recession — the rate is up by about 2 percent. The rate for children living in poverty has increased even more sharply during the time period. The Census Bureau estimates 22.1 percent of all Kansas children 0 to 4 years old were in poverty in 2010. That’s up from 17.9 percent in 2007.
A spokesman with the Census Bureau said he wasn’t able to explain the large drop in the Douglas County numbers, but he said the sampling methods used in 2009 may have been flawed and produced a number that was too high.
“It looks like there may be some statistical uncertainty with the 2009 level,” said Wes Basel, a branch chief with the Census Bureau.
But if the 2009 levels are the ones in error, that suggests an interesting conclusion too. If the 2010 numbers are correct, Douglas County’s poverty rate is virtually unchanged from the levels prior to the recession. The county had about a poverty rate of 15.4 percent in 2007 versus 15.6 percent in 2010.
Other numbers from Tuesday’s report include:
• Douglas County’s overall poverty rate is higher than that of the state’s, but its poverty rates for children are lower. The percent of people below 18 who live in poverty was 13.8 percent in Douglas County versus 15.9 percent statewide.
• Johnson County continues to have the lowest poverty rate in the state at 6.6 percent. Others in the bottom five were: Gray County, 8.1 percent; Miami County, 8.8 percent; Jefferson County, 9.0 percent; Pottawatomie County, 9.0 percent.
• Wyandotte County had the highest poverty rate in the state at 23.9 percent. Others in the top five were: Riley County, 21.2 percent; Cherokee County, 20.1 percent; Lyon County, 19.6 percent; Crawford County, 19.2 percent.
• Douglas County in 2010 had the 23rd highest poverty rate in the state. In 2009, it had the second highest rate in the state.
• 2010 poverty rates for other counties of interest included: Leavenworth, 9.4 percent; Franklin County, 11.6 percent; Osage County, 12.1 percent; Sedgwick County, 15.3 percent; Shawnee County, 17.5 percent.
The bureau estimates poverty based on surveys it takes year-round as part of the American Community Survey, as well from federal tax return data and applications for free and reduced lunches at school districts. The actual poverty level varies based on the size of a household.