The nickname “starving students” for those in college apparently has a sound basis.
New U.S. Census Bureau data released Monday show that one of every 11 Utahns currently counted as living in poverty is a college student. (Poverty rates have included students who live off-campus, but those living in campus dormitories were already excluded from general poverty counts).
The number is much higher in some college towns and provides perhaps a different picture about the causes and cures for poverty there.
In Provo — home of Brigham Young University — the overall poverty rate is 32.5 percent. It drops to 21.5 percent when college students are excluded, down about 11 percentage points. That means one of every three people currently counted as living in poverty for the period of 2009-11 there are university students.
In Logan — home of Utah State University — the overall poverty rate of 31 percent drops to 24.6 percent when college students are taken out, a drop of 6.4 percentage points. It means one of every five people included in poverty rates there are students.
College “is a time in many people’s lives when they are not fully engaged in the labor force. They are investing in themselves, so they are borrowing money,” said Pam Perlich, senior research economist at the University of Utah. “Education is an investment, so it [college poverty] is a short-term situation.”
Poor is poor • But impoverished students face the same daily challenges as others living in poverty.
“The day-to-day hard choices that people make are the same. Do we have enough to afford housing? If there is a medical emergency or the car breaks down, do we have enough money to buy food?” said Myla Dutton, executive director of Community Action Services and Food Bank in Provo.
“Their life is affected in the same way whether it is a chosen poverty because they are getting through school, or because there have been life crises,” she said.
But she said university students may have more resources available to them — such as help from parents — and challenges tend to be temporary.
Because of that, Bill Hulterstrom, president and CEO of the United Way of Utah County, says, his organization is focused on other low-income populations.
“Most of our programs that deal with poverty have not targeted college students for decades,” Hulterstrom said. “Some college students certainly have been helped, but that has not been our target population.”
Some officials said they are actually surprised that students don’t account for more of the poverty in some college towns — and the new numbers may show bigger long-term problems than imagined.
“For decades, people have always said the poverty numbers [in Provo and Orem] are just because of the college students,” Hulterstrom said. He added the clarified numbers without students included — a poverty rate of 21.5 percent in Provo — is “still higher than we would want.”
Similarly, Roger Jones, executive director of the Bear River Association of Governments that oversees some anti-poverty programs in Cache, Box Elder and Rich counties, said the 24.6 percent poverty rate in Logan without counting students “surprises me. It’s higher than I thought.”
Separating out students from others in poverty may help give a more clear picture of different causes of poverty, and help better target programs to overcome them, Perlich said.
It could help with some public relations, too. Provo for years has turned up in stories alongside such cities as Detroit and New Orleans as places with among the nation’s highest poverty — although causes and solutions may now be more easily shown as quite different.
Poverty a problem • But that doesn’t mean the community can afford to ignore what is a real challenge, say leaders.
“The moment you say poverty is not a problem here — there are a lot of people who are struggling and hurting,” Provo Mayor John Curtis cautions.
“We felt intuitively that this is a great place to live, with a high quality of life, and Provo metro was just named the No. 1 economy in the United States. ... We’ll trumpet all the good things, and keep an eye on poverty and address it.”
The new data comes from the 2009-2011 American Community Survey, and is in a new working paper entitled, “Examining the Effect of Off-Campus College Students on Poverty Rates.”
Following are some data about other Utah areas with universities:
• Sanpete County, home of Snow College in Ephraim. Its overall poverty rate is 16.1 percent. It drops to 12.2 percent without students, a drop of 3.9 percentage points.
• Cedar City, home of Southern Utah University. Its overall poverty rate is 24.5 percent. Without students, it drops to 21 percent, a drop of 3.5 percentage points.
• St. George, home of Dixie College. The overall poverty rate of 15 percent drops to 13 percent without students, down 2 percentage points.
• Salt Lake City. Its poverty rate of 20.8 percent drops to 18.9 percent without students, a drop of 1.8 percentage points.
• Orem, home to Utah Valley University. The poverty rate of 15.5 percent drops to 14 percent without students, down 1.5 percentage points.
• Ogden, home of Weber State University. Its poverty rate of 23.7 percent drops to 22.6 percent without students, down 1.1 percentage points.