Clark County middle class slips

Census data confirm what social service agencies see: Need for food, services climbs

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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2011 employment, poverty and health insurance in Clark County

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Clark County showed the same symptoms of middle-class erosion as the nation in 2011: more households slipped into poverty, median income decreased, more people were uninsured and fewer were in the labor force, according to estimates released today by the Census Bureau.

The estimates confirm what food bank workers see daily: an increase in need.

"We are not seeing any decline in need," said Dick Lauer, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Food and Clothing Bank. "The need is going up."

The county's impoverished residents climbed from 12.6 percent in 2010 to 13.7 percent in 2011, according to 2011 American Community Survey estimates. In tandem, more county residents also used food stamps in 2011, from 15.1 percent in 2010 to 16.5 percent in 2011.

Median household income inched upward from $54,924 in 2010 to $56,656 in 2011. However, when adjusted for inflation, the 2010 median household income was $56,685, meaning 2011 income decreased by $29, which is not statistically significant.

Although the loss in median income was slight compared with the previous year, the new figures offer no signs of an economic or middle-class rebound, said Scott Bailey, regional labor economist with the state Employment Security Department.

Employment rates and earnings affect median income. Unemployment was at 12.4 percent in 2011, not counting those who quit searching for work, Bailey said. It was down to 10.9 percent in June, and updated unemployment numbers will be released Tuesday.

"Wages are staying the same, and food prices are going up," Lauer said. "It just makes it that much more difficult for people."

About 13.8 percent of all Clark County residents lacked health insurance compared with 13.4 percent in 2010, also not a statistically significant change. Among employed residents, the uninsured rate was higher than the overall population, due to Medicare coverage for residents 65 and older. About 14.9 percent of employed residents had no health insurance in 2011, compared with 13.8 percent in 2010.

Up close, personal

Social service workers see the faces behind the trends every day.

More than 1,000 new families each month seek assistance through the Clark County Food Bank, which is the umbrella organization for multiple food banks, including St. Vincent de Paul, said Bill Coleman, a Clark County Food Bank board member. Any family that uses the food bank for the first time in 12 months is considered new, according to the food bank's counting method, Coleman said.

Vancouver resident Teena Coddington's situation personifies the county trends in income, poverty and health insurance. The 34-year-old single mother was laid off from her front desk job in January after the hotel she worked at was sold to a new owner. She was able to obtain unemployment benefits and food stamps. After she couldn't find a job, she decided to enroll at Clark College to study restaurant management. Her student status and income from education grants and loans made her ineligible for food stamps and Medicaid coverage. She said she still receives $200 in food stamps for her 16-year-old daughter, but lost benefits for herself. She goes to St. Vincent de Paul to pick up school clothes for her and her daughter, toilet paper, toothpaste and food.

Due to the loss of her health insurance, Coddington said she's unable to afford medication to treat her hypothyroidism.

"I'm very frustrated," Coddington said. "If I try to get gainful employment, I can't because the economy sucks. When I go to school, the government cuts my assistance."

The county estimates on poverty, median income and health insurance come from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The survey is given to 3.5 million Americans each year.

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