There has been a long debate in Athens County about the impact of including off-campus college students when calculating the county’s poverty rate. Athens County has the highest individual poverty rate in the state and has for many years. With Athens County being the home of Ohio University and Hocking College, clearly there are many students who live off-campus and are included in the poverty count. It should be noted that students living in dormitories are counted in the overall Census but not the poverty count.
Having worked for more than 40 years in the poverty field in Athens, I have been barraged with comments about our dubious distinction as being number one in poverty and the impact of including off-campus students. Unfortunately, this debate has been used as justification for minimizing the very real and tragic challenges our poor neighbors face. We seem to believe that there are no poor students.
The Census Bureau does not agree. They use a very simple process to determine poverty. If your income is below the official poverty level for your family size ($12,490 for a single person or $21,330 for a family of three), you are poor. It is just math. The Census Bureau does not get involved in distinguishing “deserving” from “undeserving” poor as we seem to want to do with our wide array of financial-assistance programs. The Census Bureau avoids this kind of thinking, the kind that has led us to slash our safety-net programs while millions of our fellow citizens struggle for survival.
The Census Bureau has a report entitled “Examining the Effects of Off-Campus College Students on Poverty Rates” updated December 2017. It includes data for both counties and places. Athens County has an overall poverty rate of 31%. The population for poverty consideration is 55,368. Some 15.3% (8,471 people) of this number represents off-campus students. The county’s poverty percentage without the off-campus students is 22.2% (12,291). The City of Athens has a poverty rate of 54%. 46% of its residents are off-campus students. If off-campus students were excluded from the poverty count the poverty rate for the city would still be nearly 30%. If off-campus students are excluded, Athens County would have the sixth-highest poverty rate in the state behind Scioto, Adams, Jackson, Pike and Meigs. That is presuming we don’t also exclude college students living off-campus in those counties.
A recent report titled 2019 State of Poverty in Ohio by the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies includes data for family poverty levels that would exclude most off-campus students. Athens ranks as having the fifth-highest family poverty level in the state behind Adams, Scioto, Meigs and Morgan counties.
The inclusion of poor students in our count has the advantage of driving millions of dollars our way due to our designation as a hardship county and as a factor for many funding formulas. Much to their disadvantage, very few of the poverty-related benefits go to students. Most don’t get Medicaid, SNAP or cash assistance. Only a handful are eligible for local social services.
The most significant advantage of having students here is that they bring money into our community. There are approximately 19,000 students on the OU main campus. The current annual cost of attendance at OU is over $29,000. That brings in hundreds of millions of dollars. Much of that money is borrowed by students and their families. Most students graduate with an average debt of roughly $25,000. Average parent debt is another $25,000.
State and federal subsidies for students are declining but still represent another significant source of revenue for our community. Most students leave OU heavily in debt, and are poor when they live here. It may not be as obvious as poverty out in the county. That is because students borrow significant amounts of money in order to pay for food and housing, an option that most poor people don’t have. Nevertheless, a student food pantry is now open at the Baker Student Center. The university is the largest employer by far. Many other businesses are very dependent on student business. Yet due to a wealth of service-industry jobs, 30% of Athens city residents are poor even if off-campus students were excluded from the count.
With two large educational institutions and the local school districts as major employers in Athens County, the county’s business is education. But the dominant social challenge is poverty. We need to address the issue with as many resources as possible and an open mind about helping everyone in need. We need to be number one in our commitment and resolve to end poverty.
Editor’s note: Jack Frech of Athens formerly served as director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services. He is a longtime advocate for poor people in southeast Ohio. The comments expressed here are his and do not reflect those of his current or former employers.