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Gary Owens, right, and Roger Vanhorn, left shop for groceries in the current Church Community Services pantry. (Truth Photo By Delayna Earley) (AP)
Poverty on the rise in Elkhart County
Posted on Dec. 14, 2012 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Dec. 14, 2012 at 6:02 a.m.

Editor's note: Scroll down for a graphic that depicts the growing poverty rate in Elkhart County.

The unemployment rate in Elkhart County has edged down and some experts talk hopefully of economic recovery.

New U.S. Census Bureau poverty stats, though, paint a grimmer picture and suggest the economic situation, for some, has steadily gotten worse since the start of the Great Recession, at least through 2011.

Here's a look at some of the numbers:

Ÿ The overall poverty rate in Elkhart County measured 18.3 percent as of 2011, representing 35,641 people, up from 11.1 percent in 2007, or 21,669 people.

Ÿ Among school-aged kids, those aged 5 to 17, the situation was worse. Some 25.9 percent lived in poverty in 2011 — that's 10,164 kids — up from 14.1 percent in 2007, or 5,368 kids.

Ÿ Elkhart County is faring worse than the state or nation as a whole. The 18.3 percent overall poverty rate here last year compared to 15.8 percent for Indiana and 15.9 percent across the country.

Ÿ On the bright side, the median household income in Elkhart County reached $44,354 in 2011, up from $43,531 in 2009. Still that was lower than $49,395 in 2007, and the 2011 number still lags behind the state's, $46,410, and the nation's, $50,740.

In contrast to growing poverty, unemployment in Elkhart County has gradually edged down since 2009, when it reached an annualized rate of 18.1 percent. The number for October, the latest available, was 8.3 percent. At the same time, the Great Recession — which technically went from December 2007 to June 2009 — is supposedly a thing of the past.

That said, the new poverty numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau's Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates program didn't come as a surprise to Elkhart County officials who work with the poor. They're still helping many people here — maybe more — and they don't see any let up in demand for food from food pantries and other such services.

MORE NEED

Rod Roberson, executive director of Church Community Services, a food pantry in Elkhart, said unemployment may be down. But there seem to be more underemployed people — those with only part-time jobs or people working for less than they did before.

“We're not seeing living wages,” Roberson said. Indeed, some are having to make tough decisions about how to spend the funds they do have — use it for food or medicine, rent or utilities?

Major Steven Woodard of the Salvation Army in Elkhart detects more homeless people. Moreover, there was a jump in meals served as part of the agency's breakfast program, 35,000 in the fiscal year going from Oct. 1, 2011, to Sept. 30, 2012, compared to around 28,000 in the previous 12-month period.

Jim Piechorowski, a volunteer with Pantries and Kitchens United of Elkhart County, sees new people seeking help all the time, particularly in the 55-and-older age range. His group works with eight food pantries and two soup kitchens in Elkhart County that help those in need.

“We see them all the time and quite frankly, it isn't going to go away, unfortunately,” he said.

POVERTY HIGHEST IN ELKHART SCHOOLS

The new U.S. Census Bureau figures even break down poverty by school district and Elkhart Community Schools fared the worst among the seven districts in Elkhart County.

Some 33.3 percent of kids aged 5 to 17 in the Elkhart district lived in poverty in 2011, representing 4,841 teens, youngsters and tykes. That compares to 17.5 percent poverty in 2007, representing 2,687 kids.

The U.S. Census Bureau has a variety of poverty thresholds, depending on the size of a family and the age of the family members. For a family of four, including two children, the poverty threshold is annual household income of $22,811.