CORRECTION, 2:58 p.m., Feb. 25, 2013: This article has been amended to note statistical weaknesses in comparing estimated Travis County poverty rates of 2011 and 2010. The additional information incorporates comments from Eva DeLuna Castro of the Center for Public Policy Priorities and a related statement by a U.S. Census Bureau expert. Our rating of the claim did not change.
A Travis County commissioner who may bid in 2014 to succeed Sam Biscoe as county judge suggests conditions are tough locally despite "present prosperity."
In a Feb. 18, 2013, email blast, Sarah Eckhardt called for reversing "our rising poverty," after writing: "Our unemployment rate is below the national average, yet our poverty rate exceeds the national average."
That’s a three-part claim: Is unemployment below the rest of the nation? Does the county’s poverty rate exceed the national rate--and is local poverty rising?
Eckhardt, a Democrat, told us by email that Travis County’s December 2012 unemployment rate was 4.9 percent, meaning that was the share of adults who did not have a job, had actively looked for work in the prior four weeks and were available for work. That was less than the Texas rate of 6.1 percent, Eckhardt said, and the U.S. rate of 7.8 percent.
Those state and national rates, she cautioned, were adjusted to account for seasonal fluctuations such as changes in weather, harvests, major holidays and school schedules. The county’s rate was not adjusted, Eckhardt noted.
By email, a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist advised against comparing seasonally adjusted and unadjusted unemployment rates. Cheryl Abbot also said that the unadjusted December 2012 national unemployment rate was 7.6 percent when the Travis County rate was 4.9 percent.
At our request, Abbot provided a chart showing Travis County’s unemployment rate and the national rate from 2009 through 2012. The county unadjusted unemployment rate consistently was less than the national rate, the chart shows. The county experienced its highest rate, 7.3 percent, in January 2010, the same month the national rate topped out at 10.6 percent.
So, the county’s jobless rate has been lower than the national one.
In 2011, Eckhardt said, Travis County and Texas had identical 18 percent poverty rates, according to the 2011 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, while the national poverty rate was 16 percent.
As noted in a Dec. 16, 2012, Austin American-Statesman news article, poverty rates can vary by subgroups. That story says that according to 2011 bureau surveys, 23 percent of Travis County’s school-age children lived in poverty. The story says the 2011 child poverty rate ranged in neighboring counties from 10 percent in Williamson County to 21 percent in Bastrop County. Nationally, 21 percent of children lived in poverty that year, the story says.
Eckhardt provided a chart, which she described as coming from a county presentation drawing on the bureau’s surveys, indicating the county’s poverty rate was as low as 12.5 percent in 2000, but escalated to 15.7 percent in 2005 before dipping to 14.7 percent in 2007 and then increasing for three years to 19.2 percent in 2010.
We did not find that report. But the county’s December 2012 "Travis County Snapshot" report, drawing on the census surveys, says 192,436 county residents lived in poverty in 2011, down from 194,156 residents in poverty in 2010, but more than the 163,690 impoverished residents in 2009.
Next, with help from bureau spokesman Robert Bernstein, we confirmed that the county had a greater share of low-income residents than the nation in 2011 when the federal poverty level for a family of four was about $23,000.
For a longer view, we checked annual poverty rates for the county, Texas and the nation from 2000 through 2011 based on the bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, which combine data from administrative records, results from the once-a-decade census and more recent population estimates and the bureau’s household surveys to "provide consistent and reliable single-year estimates," the agency says.
Estimated Poverty Rates (Percentage of Population)
|2000||9.9 %||14.6 %||11.3 %|
Source: Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, U.S. Census Bureau (accessed Feb. 20, 2013)
The county’s poverty rate was around the same as or less than the national rate from 2000 through 2002, but the county rate exceeded the national rate starting in 2003 when the county rate was 13.9 percent and the national rate was 12.5 percent, according to the estimates.
The county’s rate went up and down over the 11 years, escalating from 9.9 percent in 2000 to 15.5 percent in 2005, then dropping three straight years to 14.4 percent in 2009 before increasing to 18.8 percent in 2010--before dipping to 18.1 percent in 2011, when the national rate was 15.9 percent.
So, the county poverty rate exceeds the national rate, though the county rate decreased from 2010 to 2011, the year of the latest available rate.
After we posted this fact check, a Texas expert objected, saying that the county’s estimated 2010 and 2011 poverty rates were too close for anyone to conclude poverty went down between years. Eva DeLuna Castro, senior budget analyst with the liberal-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, also said the drop in the raw estimated number of residents in poverty--as shown in the county’s snapshot report on the 2011 American Community Survey--was likewise too slight to be statistically certain.
By our eyes, the margins of error in the 2011 and 2009-11 survey results mean that about 179,000 to 206,000 residents were in poverty in 2011, compared with 176,000 to 188,000 residents in 2009-11.
Castro said that "when surveys require several years’ worth of data in order to be statistically significant, you can’t isolate year-to-year trends – they all get smoothed out in the averages. That’s why looking at long-term trends, like over a decade, are more helpful. They tell you what’s changing (or not changing) in the underlying nature of an area’s economy that really improves or worsens residents’ quality of life."
Separately, we ran Castro’s point about comparing the county’s estimated 2010 and 2011 poverty rates past the Census Bureau. Wes Basel, chief of its Small Area Estimates Branch, agreed by email that the 2011-2010 difference in the county’s estimated poverty rate is "not large enough to be statistically significant," though he said comparisons of the county’s 2011 estimated rate to estimates for 2005 through 2010 are statistically significant; those estimated rates mostly went up in the intervening years, though there were dips, too.
Eckhardt, standing by her claim, earlier noted the near doubling in the county’s poverty rate since 2000. "The year-to-year snapshot is not nearly as interesting as the" longer timeframe, she said.
Eckhardt said the county’s unemployment rate is below the national average, yet its poverty rate exceeds the national average--and local poverty is rising.
The local jobless rate has consistently trailed the national rate and the county’s poverty rate has exceeded the national rate since 2003.
The county’s poverty rate dipped from 2010 to 2011, though that dip was not statistically significant. Also, the 2011 rate of 18.1 percent was nearly double the rate in 2000, so it looks like poverty has risen over the years. Then again, Eckhardt's statement does not acknowledge that the county rate has oscillated year to year, sometimes going down. It's not been a steady rise.
We rate her claim as Mostly True.