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Poverty in Ohio University Towns: Is it the Students?

Earlier this week, WOSU radio reported on new Census figures for poverty in the Ohio towns of Oxford and Athens. The angle at WOSU was to express surprise that the two communities had such high poverty rates (49.3% and 52.3% of individuals respectively), even though they were built around large, stable universities. If even these college towns are not immune from economic hard times, went the gist of the radio piece, then what places in Ohio are safe?

There’s a simple problem with this interpretation of the statistics: they’re not reflective of this year’s economic downturn because they’re generated using American Community Survey data collected by the Census for the years 2005 to 2007. The most you could say is that the poverty rate in Oxford and Athens might be indicative of the broader economic hard times Americans have been experiencing throughout the Bush years. And you’d be wrong: search through 2000 Census data for Athens, Ohio and Oxford, Ohio and you’ll find that in the year 2000, after all those years of economic expansion, the poverty rates in these two university towns were roughly the same as they are in this latest data. Between these two time points, poverty in Oxford and Athens is a constant, not a surging variable.

The Columbus Dispatch printed a nicely done article in which the mayors of these towns suggest that the poverty statistics are misleading, reflecting the large number of students who of course have low incomes. The American Community Survey includes students, and Oxford and Athens are a whopping 74.2% and 70.0% college student population. Student composition doesn’t explain everything — 82.3% of the population of Kent, Ohio (of Kent State University fame) is students, but that town has a poverty rate of “just” 32.9%. As a partial explanation, however, the point makes sense. Of course students make less than everybody else, and if you concentrate them in a university town, then that university town is going to look quite “poor.” Working from the same 2005-2007 American Community Survey data, the following is my list of Ohio university towns in roughly the same population class as Oxford and Athens (20-60 thousand), with % student and % in poverty listed:

Town, University, % Students, % Poverty 2005-2007
Kent, Kent State University, 82.3%, 32.9%
Oxford, Miami University, 74.2%, 49.3%
Athens, Ohio University, 70.0%, 52.3%
Bowling Green, Bowling Green State University, 67.7%, 26.5%
Youngstown, Youngstown State University, 19.7%, 29.6%
Portsmouth, Shawnee State University, 18.4%, 33.9%
Wooster, College of Wooster, 7.4%, 16.5%
Delaware, Ohio Wesleyan, 6.3%, 9.80%
Springfield, Wittenburg University, 3.2%, 25.0%

With one exception, each of these university towns has a higher reported poverty rate than the Ohio average of 13.3%. The one exception, Delaware, sports a low percentage of students attending tiny Ohio Wesleyan. And very roughly, it appears (with the exception of Springfield) that the greater the density of students in one of these Ohio university towns, the greater the reported poverty rate. The mayors’ explanation seems to hold.

The experiences of students on the pretty brick campus and somewhat hip streets of Miami University of Ohio (Oxford) and Ohio University (Athens) don’t match the poverty statistics because money is flowing in from either mom and dad or a student loan. Students will have to pay their loans back (I’m still paying off mine, fifteen years after my undergrad years ended), but for the time being they aren’t experiencing what most would call grinding poverty.

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