Iowa poverty increasing but remains below national average for now: ISU researcher

AMES, Iowa - While Iowans have enjoyed lower poverty levels than the rest of the nation for nearly four decades, trends for the past 10 years show that Iowa is losing ground, according to recent findings by an Iowa State University researcher who examined United States Census Bureau data.

David Peters, assistant professor of sociology, looked at recent poverty data collected by the Census Bureau and compared those figures with data going back to 1969.

"There is reason for pessimism," said Peters. "We are not worse off than other states. We are sort of coming up to average.

"Iowans tend to think about their state as a higher educated, low poverty, nice place to live," he continued. "It's still a nice place to live, but on this measure of economic well being, we are worsening particularly in metropolitan and micropolitan areas."

According to Peters, 40 years ago, poverty in larger Iowa metro areas, such as Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Davenport was very low. Polk County, for instance, had a poverty rate of 8.64 percent.

On the other hand, rural Iowa had a rate of 14.14 percent.

The national rate was 13.70 percent in 1969.
Since then, poverty rates in larger areas have increased (Polk County, up to 9.41 percent), while rural areas have less poverty (down to 10.55 percent).

During this time, the national average fell to 13.5 percent.

Those numbers look good and according to Peters, we still enjoy a better poverty rate than nationally.

The troubling part for Peters is that the past decade has seen Iowa's poverty rate go from 9.13 to 11.37 percent.

"What's likely going to happen in Iowa is we are going to see poverty rates increasing," he said. "We are technically out of the recession, but that hasn't meant job growth. Jobs have remained stagnant. So as people's unemployment insurance expires, and people tap out of their savings, and people maybe leave their homes, that is going to increase the poverty rates in Iowa."

Poverty guidelines are set by the federal government and reflect the amount of money a household needs to make to feed itself for a year. Currently, poverty level for one person is defined as annual income of less than $10,830.

A family of four is considered in poverty if they have an income of less than $22,050, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services website.

Peters says that the places most likely to be in poverty have more single-headed families and minorities, particularly growing Hispanic populations in micro areas in Iowa.

Iowa's numbers are typical around the country, said Peters.

During the same 40 years, poverty in middle-sized towns in Iowa, called micropolitan areas, fluctuated, but overall has remained stable. In 1969, the poverty rate was 10.50 percent and in 2009 the rate was 10.55 percent.

Micropolitan areas have populations larger than 10,000 but less than 50,000.

When looking at the raw census data, Peters said people need to be careful.

Story, Johnson and Black Hawk counties all had among the fastest growing poverty rates in the state, with Story County having a poverty rate of more than 20 percent.

Peters explains that these high figures are due to the major universities in these areas. Poverty rate statistics do not include students living in residence halls, but do include all students who live off campus in these counties.

Since most students earn less than a poverty-level income, they are included in the figures.

Peters says these people are most often in poverty only temporarily and high figures in these areas are not worrisome.

After examining the poverty rates for all areas of Iowa, Peters explained that the rural areas are seeing a loss of population as people migrate to larger urban centers and micropolitan areas to seek employment and services.

"These are the Fort Dodges and the Mason Cities of Iowa," said Peters.

This migration drives down the poverty rates in rural areas, while increasing the rates in the urban areas. During a prolonged recession, it puts a strain on the government's ability to provide services for citizens, said Peters.

Peters says that poverty rates are often tied closely with manufacturing, and stabilizing the manufacturing base can help keep poverty levels low.

Communities such as Newton in Jasper County, which has historically had very low poverty levels, saw a huge spike between 1999 and 2009 because of the loss of jobs associated with the departure of the Maytag plant and headquarters, according to Peters.

Peters says the news isn't all bad.

Other towns with strong manufacturing bases still in place, such as Pella, have bucked the trend, said Peters.

"Pella is a little bit of an anomaly," said Peters. "They have the window plant and a very strong downtown. Pella also has a very distinct character and those things probably tend to stabilize it a little."

Oskaloosa, a micropolitan area in poverty-heavy southeastern Iowa, has gone from a 16.99 percent poverty rate in 1969 to a current rate of 11.38 percent. But, Peters points out, the rate was as low as 9.84 percent in 1999 before increasing over the last decade.

"Over the past 40 years, we saw big drops in poverty. Most areas in Iowa saw poverty rates improve. Things have looked pretty good," he said. "And we are still better off than most other places.

"But over the past decade, almost every place [in Iowa] has worsened. There has been growth in poverty rates everywhere except in a few places."

Counties that saw a decrease in poverty in the past 10 years are: Adams, Cherokee, Clay, Davis, Guthrie, Keokuk, Kossuth, Lyon, Mitchell, Page, Plymouth, Pocahontas, Poweshiek, Ringgold, Sioux, Tama, Taylor and Wayne.

For Peters' entire report, go to