County, state rank below national poverty average

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— In a recently released U.S. Census Bureau study on the number of people stricken by poverty throughout the country based on 1997 figures, Colorado and Routt County each ranked near the bottom of their respective groups.
Colorado, with a total of 403,410 people below the poverty line, or 10.2 percent of the state's population, ranked below the national average of 13.3 percent.
Routt County, in turn, ranked near the bottom of the state, with 1,194 people or 6.8 percent below the poverty line.
The numbers, however, which are estimates based on variables such as tax returns and data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, can be misleading. For instance, the poverty line varies from family to family based on things such as the number of children in the household but does not vary geographically, meaning that the cost of living in a particular place is not taken into account in establishing the line.
The poverty threshold for a family of four with two children in 1997 was $16,276.
The estimated data on poverty takes three years to calculate because the relevant data is not available for two years, according to the census bureau.
The data on poverty, however, is not just used by academics interested in proving their points. Data on poverty levels in school districts correlates directly with the ability of that district to receive federal funds for programs that aid impoverished students under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The U.S. Department of Education uses numbers of low-income families from the most recent decennial census to calculate allocations to school districts. This number is augmented by annually collected counts of school-age children in foster homes, locally operated institutions for neglected or delinquent children and families above the poverty line that receive assistance under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The allocation is adjusted to account for the cost of education in each state, according to the Department of Education.
The Steamboat RE-2 School District, for example, received about $105,000 this year to provide assistance for low-income students, Finance Director Dale Mellor said. That money is spent providing free and reduced lunches and special education programs, in addition to funding a "gifted and talented program" for students who are having trouble in school, Mellor said.
"If we didn't have this money, we would not be able to offer the programs to these at-risk kids," Mellor said.
Mellor said that in a district with 1,905 funded students (kindergartners, who attend school for half the day, are considered half students), 71 receive free or reduced lunches, a total of about 4 percent.
Mellor said he thinks some students who are eligible for free or reduced lunches decide not to sign up because of the stigma attached to receiving them.
The level of poverty among school-age children in Routt County went down between 1990 and 1997, based on official 1990 census data. Taking into account the fact that the two methods of calculating poverty levels (collected census data and estimations) differ considerably, the numbers show that the percentage of impoverished children went down from 9.6 percent to 8.4 percent in those seven years.
While deconstructing the causes and effects of poverty in the county based on estimated census bureau figures would prove foolish, the data may illuminate general trends in the economy.
Mellor thinks the poverty level may in fact be increasing among school-age children. He said he thinks an influx of people working for lower wages in the community may have brought up the number of poor school-age children in the past year.
Linda Kakela, the city's director of intergovernmental services, said she thinks the higher level of poverty in the region in 1990 as opposed to 1997 may have been the result of a recession that took hold of Northwest Colorado throughout the 1980s. Kakela said the recession was due in part to an energy bust.
"The data from 1990 might be reflecting that all of Northwest Colorado was in a deep recession throughout most of the 1980s," Kakela said. "It was really tough times in Northwest Colorado."

To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203 or e-mail asalzman@amigo.net

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