AK poor grow by 15 percent

Shelter director estimates 20 percent of Juneau's population lives in poverty

Posted: Friday, December 21, 2001

Nearly 15 percent more Alaskans were living in poverty in the late 1990s than in the previous decade, according to Census Bureau estimates released this week.

The rates, however, fluctuated throughout the '90s, according to an Associated Press analysis of poverty rates from 1989 to 1998, the most recent numbers available from the Census Bureau.

The federal poverty level in 1998 was $16,450 for a family of four. Now it's $17,650.

Dan Austin, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which runs a family shelter and other service programs to the poor, said $17,650 has no relevance to Juneau.

"We figure that a family of three needs $32,000 a year not to be on the poverty level," Austin said Thursday.

Austin estimates that 20 percent of Juneau's population lives in poverty.

"People in poverty here are depending on government-provided housing, government-provided health care and on day-care assistance and on private charities to supplement that," he said. "Our failure as a society is that we haven't done anything for those who used to be on welfare."

Neal Fried, a state labor economist, said the increase of poor Alaskans largely reflects population growth.

Census figures show that in 1989 there were 57,539 Alaskans - or 10.6 percent of the population - living in poverty. In 1998, there were 65,970 people living in poverty in the state, or 10.8 percent of the population.

"The population grew about the same as the poverty rates," Fried said.

The lower poverty numbers in 1989 also could reflect the boost that same year from the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the aftermath, including the massive cleanup.

"Just a ton of money was dumped into Alaska's economy," Fried said.

Fried said he expects a better portrait of the state's poor to emerge when the Census Bureau releases more current data next summer with numbers from the 2000 Census.

According to figures compiled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the local research business the McDowell Group, Juneau per capita income for 1999 was $33,974, a 2 percent increase since 1990. Juneau area real (inflation-adjusted) per capita income is 19 percent higher than Alaska and U.S. averages. However, local per capita income has been growing at a much slower rate than the U.S. average.

Juneau's inflation-adjusted per capita income is largely stagnant. Real per capita income in 1999 in Juneau was only $930 higher than in 1990 while the U.S. average increased $3,600. That means that the average wage in Juneau, adjusted for inflation, fell 10 percent between 1990 and 1999. In the same period, average U.S. wages overall increased 12 percent.

Juneau's overall cost of living is 25 percent higher than the national average, studies show. Health-care costs are the most dramatically higher, at 60 percent more than the U.S. average.

Major Larry Fankhauser of the Salvation Army said he's seen no recent increase in the number of poor people in Juneau.

"I go by what I see come into the office here," he said. "The clientele we have seen has been pretty much the same for the last couple years."

Joan Decker, executive director of the Glory Hole shelter and dining hall, said many poor people are making little economic progress, even if they are working.

"I am moving a lot of people out of here into jobs, but often they have to hold two jobs to make ends meet," Decker said. "The number seems to be growing of people who cannot make a living wage. We see many people working who cannot pay for more than their rent, so they need to eat in soup kitchens and get food baskets."

The Glory Hole is anticipating a flood of requests next month when people reach the federal government's five-year limit for getting off welfare.

"I think (the increase in poverty in Juneau) has to do with the movement of people into the service industry rather than into professional labor," Decker said. "They are leading a marginal existence. They can get along if they are single or healthy and can work long hours. But as soon as they are married or have children or are older, it's very difficult."

Alaska's child poverty rates increased 5.4 percent in that decade, according to census data. Statewide in 1998, there were 28,014 children living in poverty, 14.6 percent of the population under 18.

Children of poor families are sometimes forced onto the street at 16 or 18 to make their own way, Decker said, which can lead to a greater incidence of crime and homelessness.

"Of the 100 families that we are giving food baskets, we find they include about 200 children a number that has grown over the past five or six years," she said.

Empire reporter Ann Chandonnet and Associated Press reporter Rachel D'Oro contributed to this article.

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