Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 1:49 PM on Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Poverty on Kenai Peninsula matches statewide trend



By Brian Smith
Morris News Service - Alaska

Poverty levels in the Kenai Peninsula Borough are on par with statewide levels, according to information recently published by the Alaska Department of Labor.

From 2006 to 2010, 9.5 percent of people in the borough were considered in poverty — the same level as the state, according to information in a report written by Department of Labor economist Alyssa Shanks.

The poverty level is determined by a number of factors, including age, household size and number of children living in the house. For instance, one person living alone under the age of 65 is considered below the poverty line if he or she makes less than $11,344 per year. A four-person household with two children under 18 years old is considered in poverty if the family's income is less than $22,113 per year. Poverty levels do not take into account cost of living or other expenses, just family income, Shanks said.

However, areas surrounding the borough, except for Anchorage, all have higher poverty levels, including Kodiak Island Borough, 10.9 percent; Lake and Peninsula Borough, 21.4 percent; Dillingham Census Area, 18.1 percent; Bethel, 18.6 percent and Matanuska-Susitna with 9.9 percent.

The Valdez-Cordova area has a lower rate of 6.9 percent poverty, Anchorage, 7.9 percent; and Juneau; 6.5 percent.

"The biggest factor is going to be that wages in (your) borough are lower than the state average and lower than Anchorage," Shanks said.

However, if the margin of error in the data is taken into account, Kenai could be on par or just slightly above Anchorage's poverty level, Shanks said.

"Kenai is a pretty seasonal place and that factors into it," she said. "Folks make most of their wages in the summer and it is an 'enough to get by' sort of a thing, but when you are looking at it averaged out over the year it still falls below that poverty threshold."

As a whole, Alaska's poverty rate from 2006 to 2010 was lower than averages across the nation and among states in the Northwest region. The national poverty rate was 13.8 percent of the population. In Washington it was 12.1 percent; Oregon, 14 percent; and California, 13.7 percent.

One of the reasons Alaska as a whole has a seemingly low rate is because things like living expenses and public assistance programs aren't taken into account, Shanks said. If such things were factored in, Shanks said the rate would likely still rise, but that always depends on the amount of public assistance available.

"It is really hard to tell," she said. "I would say it would probably go up, but because as a state we get so much assistance, it is hard for me to tell right off the bat if it would go up or it would go down."

Shanks said the borough also can thank its comparatively low poverty rate on a diverse economy and the availability of jobs.

"Kenai has jobs," she said. "It has opportunities whereas a lot of the places that have 25 to 30 percent poverty rates, they also have chronic joblessness. So it doesn't matter what time of year, you are going to see unemployment rates (in other places) that are double digits.

"That's a big, big piece. I think that would be the most important piece as to why their poverty rates are so high is because there aren't jobs ... and their income is as low as it can be and still be maintaining life."

In December of 2011, the most recent statistics available, the borough had a 9.6 percent unemployment rate, which was up from 8.9 percent in November, but that increase follows traditional seasonal swings. The unemployment rate is down, however, from 10.7 percent in December of 2010, according to state data.

The national unemployment rate is 8.5 percent and Alaska's state average is 7.3 percent.

The state's more urban areas have lower unemployment, including Anchorage, 5.6 percent; Juneau, 5 percent and the Fairbanks North Star Borough with 6.7 percent.

Across the borough, average food stamp caseloads also have increased over the last several years, state officials reported.

According to information provided by the Alaska Health and Social Services Department, average monthly food stamp caseloads have increased 38 percent in borough households from 2009 to 2011. In 2009, the average caseload for homes in the borough was 1,982, which grew to 2,729 in 2011.

Individual food stamp caseloads in the area also increased 29 percent in the same three-year stretch, from 4,535 cases in 2009 to 5,856 cases in 2011.

Linda Swarner, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, said those statistics match up with what her organization is seeing, particularly in the area of families needing more assistance. However, increases haven't been as dramatic as they were around the 2008 "spike," she said.

"There are two-income and three-income families that some of them may have had their hours cut or their job positions have been eliminated totally," she said. "We are also seeing a number of people that have health issues so they can't work."

Diana Spann, Peninsula Regional Manager for the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said foot traffic at the Peninsula Job Center in Kenai's old Carr's Mall has steadily increased in the seven years she has worked there.

"I can't talk to the poverty level, but I know the people we have come in the job center looking for work has increased and it has increased steadily every year since I have worked here," she said. "Right now we have most of our computers busy for most of the day and we have beefed up the workshops to meet the needs better of what our customers need."

The job center, in addition to housing information, classes and other resources for job seekers also serves as a one-stop-shop for those in need. The Department of Public Assistance — which helps with food stamps, energy assistance and other programs — is also housed in the same building just a few steps away, Spann said.

"It's no wrong door," she said. "They come in here and they don't need to know we are the Department of Labor or the Department of Public Assistance ... or whatever, they just need to come in and we just ask them what brings them in and what can we do and then we help them find what they need."

The staff also works hard on referrals and follow-ups to help make sure residents' basic needs are met so perhaps they can climb above the poverty level.

"They can't go to work if they don't have a place to live or food in their belly or clothes to wear or they if they don't have decent child care for their kids — those are things that have to be figured out before they can go to work," she said.

Spann remains optimistic about the area's unemployment and poverty level based on what she sees from the local job market, she said. She said there are a wide range of local jobs available and she hears more success stories each day, she said.

"We are seeing some good paying jobs posted and I think today we had a (total) of 267 jobs listed," she said in late-February. "That is an increase in the number of open positions, so things are looking better from our point of view."

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