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Robb Jeffries, Forum News Service, Published July 30 2013

Census: Poverty rises in college towns; rate drops when off-campus students excluded

GRAND FORKS – University students can raise poverty rates significantly in areas where they live, especially in college towns such as Grand Forks and Fargo, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report.

In Grand Forks, home to the University of North Dakota, the percentage of people living below the poverty line decreases by 8 percentage points when students living off campus are excluded, which lowers the poverty rate to 10.4 percent.

In Fargo, home to North Dakota State University, the poverty rate decreases by 5.7 percentage points for a total of 10.5 percent.

David Flynn, chairman of UND’s Economics Department, said not all students reporting poverty-level income truly fit in that demographic. “If they are receiving support from mom and dad, like $100 or $200 a month, or if they are paying certain bills for them, you’re not necessarily getting a look at their whole income.”

Among the states, North Dakota’s poverty rate was the most affected by college students, decreasing by 1.8 percentage points when students are excluded. Nationwide, the average decrease was 0.7 percentage points.

Minnesota’s rate decreases by 1 percentage point and South Dakota’s by 1.1 percentage points.

The Census report, which took data from the 2009-2011 American Community Survey, excluded students who live off campus, but not those living with relatives because the poverty status of the latter still tied to their families. The poverty rate has long excluded students living in campus housing.

Several Grand Forks organizations say having a high number of poor young people in town does affect their decisions.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization, which develops transportation plans, has identified the neighborhood around UND as an area with a high concentration of “populations of concern,” which includes college students, said MPO Executive Director Earl Haugen.

“Whenever we do a transportation project in that neighborhood, we have to do an additional study to evaluate the impact the project could have on students,” he said.

Populations of concern, which also includes the elderly and minority groups, have a large impact on decisions about city bus operations because they are more likely to use the bus, he said.

Students are among the nearly 11,000 households that have visited local food banks and they also use emergency rent assistance programs, according to Pat Berger, president of the United Way of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Area.

It doesn’t help that many students work in low-paying, service-sector jobs, she said.

“It’s not just one of these factors that does it,” she said. “You put all these factors together and – boom – you have a lot of students living in poverty.”