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Poverty's profile changing in Tri-State area

March 01, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

The number of people living in poverty throughout the Tri-State area decreased between 1993 and 1995, even though population increased in each of the seven counties.

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There were 49,306 Tri-State residents below the poverty line in 1995, compared to 52,515 in 1993, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

The overall percentage of people in poverty dropped from 9.6 to 8.8 during that same period.

Beyond the statistics is a changing picture of poverty. People who provide services to the needy in the Tri-State area say more and more poor people have jobs.

"The working poor is on the increase," said Cheryl Walkley, executive director of the Washington County Community Action Council.

While the overall number of poor residents is declining, she said, "who the people are is changing."

Fewer people receive government assistance now as a result of welfare reform measures passed by Congress in 1996.

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As a result, there has been greater demand at organizations such as the Waynesboro Area Human Services Council, which helps residents with rent, utilities, clothing and other needs.

"The people who are impoverished have less and less resources. The strain on nonprofits is heightened," said Susan Brall, coordinator of the Waynesboro, Pa., agency.

For example, fewer poor people can afford doctor's visits and prescriptions, she said. "We're seeing them coming to us more and more for those kinds of things."

The cost of living has increased while government assistance decreased. "The need is probably still as great, if not greater," Brall said.

The federal Office of Management and Budget defines the poverty level each year based on household income. For a family of four, that average was $14,763 in 1993 and $15,569 in 1995.

Thousands of Tri-State residents climbed above the poverty level before the government's push to move people from welfare to work took effect.

In Franklin County, Pa., the number of poor people went from 11,157 to 10,030 between 1993 and 1995. During the same period, 1,483 people in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle climbed above the poverty level.

Fewer Panhandle residents receive food stamps, cash and Medicaid assistance from the state, according to Kathryn Boylan, community services manager at the Department of Health and Human Resources in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Boylan oversees Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties, where she said most local jobs are service-related - in retail, fast food, hotels and motels. They may seem minor, but those are opportunities other West Virginia counties don't have, she said.

"I think the Panhandle is very different from other parts of the state," Boylan said. "I truly believe that people here have the opportunity to work if they choose."

The West Virginia counties had the highest poverty percentages in the Tri-State area between 1993 and 1995.

But Washington County had the most poor people, 12,687 in 1993 and 12,268 in 1995. It was also the only district where the percentage of poor schoolchildren increased.

In 1995, 13.5 percent of Washington county's kids between the ages of 5 and 17 were living in poverty, up from 12.9 percent in 1993. In the seven counties combined, the number of children ages 5 to 17 in poverty dropped from 11,948 in 1993 to 11,510 in 1995.

Tri-State area service providers reported serving a high number of children and single mothers. At the Waynesboro Area Human Services Council, 50 percent of the clients are single mothers with children under the age of 8, according to Brall.

Last year, the Washington County Community Action Council provided shelter to 656 children, 34 percent of the total clients sheltered, according to Services Director Glenda Helman.

While poverty may be declining, it is still a problem, she said.

"We've got families out there living in cars or abandoned buildings."

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