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Fewer Northwest Arkansans, especially children, are living in poverty, new census estimates show.

The Census Bureau on Thursday released several surveys for the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan area in 2016, part of the set of annual population snapshots the bureau takes between the full census every decade. The latest numbers found almost 21,000 children living under the federal poverty line, a 20 percent drop from 2015 and down from 31,000 in 2011.

By the numbers

Annual census estimates have found the number of people living below the federal poverty line, shown here to the nearest 1,000, has steadily fallen in Northwest Arkansas in the past several years.

Year201120122013201420152016

All ages in poverty80,00083,00081,00080,00072,00068,000

Children in poverty31,00031,00028,00026,00027,00021,000

Source: U.S. Census American Community Survey

Northwest Arkansas groups working to help low-income families cautiously celebrated the numbers and praised the region's work to tackle poverty, though more must still be done. Northwest Arkansas' count of people of all ages in poverty fell from around 72,000 to 68,000, which is still almost equal to Springdale's population. The regular homeless count by the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville has found hundreds of children in shelters, on the street or doubling up with others.

"Any time you work yourself out of a job doing what we do, it's a good thing, so if that's the case, that's great," said Mary Mann, development and community relations director for the Samaritan Community Center, which provides food, dental care and other services from its Springdale and Rogers locations.

Behind the drop

The latest census numbers are based on responses from around 8,000 people, so inadvertent differences between the groups that fill out the survey each year can shift the results in ways that don't match the big picture. The 2010 survey, for example, found a sudden drop in poverty in the middle of the recession that had vanished by 2011.

But the surveys have consistently counted a dwindling number of impoverished children since then in the region and found similar drops in Arkansas and the country as a whole, giving support to the latest count's accuracy.

The federal government's definition of poverty varies by family size and is adjusted each year. This year a family of three making $20,000 or less is below the poverty line, for example.

The drop suggests attempts to help families out of poverty through policy and community work are at least partly succeeding, said Ana Phakhin, community impact director for United Way of Northwest Arkansas. The organization in recent years has focused its efforts on child poverty, and in June awarded $2.9 million in two-year grants to 31 domestic violence shelters, health care and after-school providers and other local groups.

Phakhin pointed to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which gives financial help for low-income earners to buy health insurance, for example. Parents who get coverage often enroll their children as well, she said.

Congressional Republicans have attempted to curtail Obamacare's scope and assistance this year, but have faltered because of concerns among Democrats and some Republicans over the impact of doing so.

The Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation and other national groups also have credited the earned-income tax credit, which is aimed especially at lower earners with children, and nutrition assistance, often called food stamps, for the nationwide fall in child poverty. Helping families and kids improve their standing requires a multifaceted approach to have a lasting effect, Phakhin said.

"You have to go to school healthy and not hungry," she said, adding Northwest Arkansas is home to effective and creative organizations. United Way is working with the Marshallese community and the university to encourage college savings accounts, for example. Ozark Literacy Council works with several public schools to improve reading ability among all kids.

"We see these small gains, but hopefully we'll be able to see some more significant gains down the road," Phakhin said.

Community-wide change

Whatever the causes, the census estimates show the entire region is gaining ground in several economic measures. Median household income ticked up from about $51,000 in 2015 to $52,000 in 2016. The march toward higher education continued apace as well, with a particular spike in the number of people with graduate degrees, while the number of adults without a high school diploma kept falling.

Degrees or other training after high school can open up jobs in well-paying jobs in research, manufacturing and health care. Take Arkansas Children's Northwest, the new hospital opening in Springdale in January that's still working on filling roughly 250 jobs. Nurses, physicians and technicians all need degrees or certifications, and non-clinical positions in management or information technology often do, too, said Laura Spies, who's leading the hospital's recruitment efforts.

"We're really excited about the team we're building," she said, and dozens of positions are still open. The hospital's holding a recruitment fair for night-shift nurses in particular Oct. 28 and lists openings at archildrens.org/nwacareers.

Single parents seeking post-secondary education come to the Single Parent Scholarship Fund of Northwest Arkansas making an average of $16,000 and more than double that when they finish their schooling, fund executive director Tyler Clark said. The fund helps around 150 parents a year in Washington, Madison and Carroll counties who are at 200 percent of the federal poverty line or lower.

"The correlation is obviously a degree, but also exposure to career options they didn't know they had before," Clark said, referring to such assistance as job fairs and mentorships that college and the fund provide.

The number of single parents has remained roughly steady for the past several years, according to the census estimates, but a bigger proportion are dads. Clark said the fund is open to any single parent.

Cutting against the region's gains, the estimates found the number of black people living in Northwest Arkansas has stagnated, falling by a few hundred from 2015 to 2016, but staying around 13,000, a much smaller proportion than in the rest of the state. White, Asian, American Indian and mixed-race folks, as well as Hispanic people, who can be any race, all added to their numbers, in contrast.

Experts have pointed to the relative lack of slavery in this corner of the state before the Civil War and the proximity of the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups as cause for the small proportion of black people. Rev. Curtiss Smith leads Fayetteville's St. James Missionary Baptist Church, which has stood since the war's end, and said he was the only black person in his neighborhood and at his office when he moved to Fayetteville in 1995 for a Wal-Mart job. He met most of his friends at church.

The community has grown since then, but Smith said some of his church's members have left the area in recent years for places such as Atlanta because of layoffs at Wal-Mart and similar factors. They've found fewer opportunities to get hired and promoted at the region's major companies than just a few years back, he said.

"They can't stay here if they can't take care of their family," Smith said, urging employers to make racial diversity a priority. He expects the decrease in African-American residents to continue otherwise.

NW News on 10/22/2017

Print Headline: Survey: Child poverty falls as region gains ground

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