The Untold Stories of Knoxville's Poverty Statistics

An official rate of 20 percent may understate local hardship

The past month has brought a steady stream of dreary national news from the United States Census Bureau. The number of families on welfare has risen a full percent during the recession, to almost 5 percent of the population. More than one in five people in the country live in designated "poverty areas"—census tracts with poverty rates of 20 percent or more. More than 15 million children under the age of 18 live in poverty.

But if you're not one of those families, if you're making above $22,314, which is defined by the Census Bureau as the poverty threshold for a family of four, it's easy to skim the grim statistics and go on with your life—let's face it, you're about ready to turn the page now, aren't you?

We'd suggest you keep reading. The problem isn't just national. It's local. Thirty percent of Tennessee's population lives in a high poverty area. And while Knox County may be in better shape than many of its neighbors, like Union County, where 40 percent of school-age children live in poverty, area service providers say the numbers aren't showing the whole picture.

So what are the numbers? According to the latest results from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, in the Knox County school district, 15 percent of school-age children are in poverty. Among states, Tennessee has the sixth-lowest income in the country. That's a median family income of $32,756 in Knoxville; 53 percent of Knoxville households make under $35,000 a year. And while Knox County's poverty rate fell in 2010, to 12.9 percent from 14.7 percent in 2009, the city of Knoxville's rate is virtually unchanged at around 20 percent, where it has hovered for years. Plus, a big chunk of the city's population—11,809 households, 14 percent of all the households in the city—were on food stamps in 2010.

Cecelia Waters is the Director of Energy and Community Service for Knoxville's Community Action Committee, or CAC. She administers the low-income energy assistance program, and she says applications are up—way up.

"There's definitely been an increase. Between the loss of hours at jobs, and the loss of jobs, and the rising cost of utilities, there's been an increase in applications," Waters says. She says she doubts that the county's poverty rate has really decreased.

"I know there's a lot of unmet need when it comes to utility services," Waters says.

Barbara Kelly is the director of CAC, and she says the agency is especially seeing an increase in people requesting first-time help, and at a time when her staff and budget have suffered their own cutbacks.

"Last year we had $6 million to help 14,000 households. We have half that amount this year, but more people applying," Kelly says. There are waiting lists for everything, from utility assistance to help with rent to home repairs to transportation.

And take the Empty Stocking Fund. Kelly says this year there were over 4,100 eligible applicants for 3,600 slots. She says CAC is prioritizing those who need help most—families with young children and the elderly. But even that has its limitations, Kelly says, noting an increased poverty rate among seniors.

"I think that's a comparable story to what you're seeing from other agencies," she says. "These days almost everybody knows someone who's been laid off."

So if demand for agency services is up, why are the statistics showing otherwise? Partly, Kelly explains, because they're from last year—2010.

"I know some of the poverty statistics lag behind," Kelly says, adding that she thinks other indicators may not be counted in the statistics. Seniors on expensive medication, for example, may be living below the poverty threshold but not showing up as officially poor in the statistics.

For those readers who have some extra funds to help the less fortunate, Kelly says any number of CAC's programs could use the help—the Empty Stocking Fund, Mobile Meals, or Homeward Bound, which helps the homeless find housing. Kelly also says accounts can be set up to provide direct assistance to clients.