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Study: College students living off campus alone can skew poverty rates

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BOONE, N.C. — Watauga County, the home of Appalachian State University and the thriving town of Boone, has one of the highest poverty rates in North Carolina — 28.4 percent.

Or does it?

In the eyes of a new U.S. Census Bureau study on poverty rates, such college students as Connor Ballard may not be the economic lump of coal that their summer paychecks may suggest — or a drag on the poverty rate.

Ballard, 20, makes $8.50 an hour at a grocery store here working a cash register. He rents a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate, each splitting the $640 rent. He scored his “new” couch when someone decided to throw it out. Other budget items include $50 a week for food and $30 a month for Internet.

“I’ve got to make that work somehow,” Ballard, a rising junior from Charlotte, said this week during a work break.

Between 2009 and 2011, about 15.2 percent of the U.S. population had an income below the poverty level, according to the Census Bureau study. More than half — 51.8 percent — of students living independently off campus without relatives were below the poverty line.

Ballard normally would fall within Watauga’s poverty rate. At 28.4 percent, it’s among the highest in North Carolina, close to that of Vance County, which, with a similar population of nearly 45,000, has a poverty rate of 28.7 percent. Unlike Vance’s poverty rate, however, Watauga’s would improve significantly without people such as Ballard.

According to the study, Watauga’s poverty rate would drop to 15.7 percent if the rate were to exclude college students who live independently off campus, not with relatives. The margin of improvement, according to the study, puts Watauga as having the seventh largest in the U.S. among counties with populations between 20,000 and 65,000. By comparison, the poverty rate in Vance County, which does not have a comparable off-campus student population, showed no statistically significant change.

The poverty rate serves as one of many guideposts for city and county planners, according to Paul Norby, the director of the planning department in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. It can be used to make decisions, for example, on affordable housing, transportation, business development and education.

According to the Census Bureau study, titled Examining the Effect of Off-Campus College Students on Poverty Rates, the economic status of college students living independently off campus without relatives can skew poverty rates.

“Though they are a transient resident population, it is apparent that the demographic and economic characteristics of these students are noticeably reflected in the characteristics of the local communities. In particular, such impacts are more evident in smaller communities,” according to the study.

Larger North Carolina counties — such as Forsyth, Guilford, Durham, Wake and Mecklenburg — showed little change in poverty rate: less than 2 percent.

Excluding such students, the poverty rate for the rest of the U.S. population dropped to 14.5 percent, and most states also had small but statistically significant declines in their poverty rates, according to the study.

Ballard plans to graduate in two years with a major in business management and a minor in sustainable development. After that, he may try to manage a company, he said, or possibly start a business.

Not in Ballard’s long-term plan is an $8.50 an hour wage.

Source: The Winston-Salem Journal