published Friday, September 20th, 2013

Census shows income surge, poverty dip in the Chattanooga area

Crystal McMath picks out baked goods at the Chattanooga Food Bank.
Crystal McMath picks out baked goods at the Chattanooga Food Bank.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

2012 median household income

Chattanooga: $40,116

Hamilton County: $47,667

Tennessee: $42,764

United States: $51,017

2011 median household income

Chattanooga: $33,250

Hamilton County: $42,640

Tennessee: $42,320

United States: $51,100

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

People are making more money in the Chattanooga area. New numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey show a huge jump in median household income from 2011 to 2012 for people in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

After a big dip the year before, income levels are back in the same ballpark they were in 2010. The data also show a drop in poverty levels for the city and the county. For the nation as a whole, income and poverty levels showed no significant change from 2011 to 2012.

Before getting excited about the numbers in the report, though, it's important to keep in mind that they're just an estimate.

"These data are developed through an annual survey with a relatively small sample size," said Bill Fox, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee.

The survey shows that in Chattanooga, median household income rose from $33,250 in 2011, to $40,116 in 2012, which is higher than it was before the recession. In Hamilton County, the median household income rose from $42,640 in 2011 to $47,667 in 2012, still a little lower than it was in 2008.

Figures from 2012 still haven't touched the national median household income of $51,017. "Median household income" means that half the people surveyed earn above that amount, and half of the people surveyed earn below that amount.

Fox said the economy is no doubt improving, and Tennessee and Chattanooga seem to be doing just fine, but "this is more likely a statistical anomaly than a measure of real economic change."

The margin of error for this year's estimate was more than $3,000 for the city and more than $2,000 for the county. Since the margin of error for 2011 was also sizable, it's possible that the real median income for 2011 and 2012 could be much closer than the estimates show.

J.Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing communications at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, does think the local economy is improving.

"I think a big piece of it is, this community has gotten its act together," said Marston.

Marston credits the uptick in Chattanooga to three main factors: the city is attracting new companies, supporting well-established companies and fostering entrepreneurship. He said the Chamber has focused on recruiting and supporting companies that pay higher wages than the average wage in Hamilton County.

Marston said Access America Transport, which employs more than 400 people locally, has been good for the economy, and he said Volkswagen, which directly employs about 3,000 people, has had "a positive ripple effect through the rest of the economy."

From 2011 to 2012, the Chattanooga metropolitan area gained 3,600 jobs -- about a 1.5 percent increase in the total labor force -- according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was the third straight year of job gains. The city gained jobs in construction, manufacturing and service industries, some of the sectors that were hit the worst during the recession that began in 2008.

Along with an increase in income, Chattanooga and Hamilton County saw a drop in poverty. In Chattanooga, 21 percent of people were living below the poverty level in 2012, down from 29 percent the year before. In Hamilton County, that number dropped from 19 percent in 2011 to 15 percent in 2012. For the nation as a whole, the percentage of people living below poverty was about 15 percent both years. In 2012, a family of four was considered below the poverty level if its household income was below $23,050.

Even though the numbers look better, some people are still hurting. Peggy Morgan is unemployed and said she has not noticed a difference in the economy. She takes care of a 73-year-old man, who in turn, supports her and her pregnant daughter with his Social Security check.

"Trying to have enough money to last for four weeks is tough," she said. "The last week of the month you're scraping for change."

Traffic at the food bank has not slowed either. Maeghan Jones, president of the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, said the food bank has had a 30 percent increase in visitors over the past two years, and many of those patrons have jobs.

"It takes a lot of improvement [in the economy] for it to affect the most vulnerable members of our communities," said Jones. "So we haven't seen a decline in the need for services."

The Chattanooga Community Kitchen fed 8,000 more people in 2012 than in 2011, but the kitchen's executive director, Charlie Hughes, said it's getting easier for people to find jobs now.

"We've had several people who got jobs in the past few weeks," said Hughes. "We said yesterday, things may be looking up."

Marston feels optimistic, too. He said companies have been adding more jobs in 2013, and there's been a lot of "entrepreneurial activity."

"We've had a strong calendar year so far," he said.

The census reports also looked at health insurance coverage. The portion of people who are uninsured dropped by less than a percentage point for the city, county, and nation as a whole.

In 2012, about 16 percent of people in Chattanooga and about 13 percent of people in Hamilton County were uninsured.

Contact staff writer Mary Helen Miller at mhmiller@timesfreepress.com.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com.

about Mary Helen Miller...

Mary Helen Miller joined the staff at the Chattanooga Times Free Press as a multimedia reporter in 2013. She produces audio, video, and graphics for the Web, and occasionally writes stories. Before starting at the Times Free Press, Mary Helen worked as a radio reporter at WUTC, the NPR affiliate station in Chattanooga. She won an Edward R. Murrow award for a story she produced there about the anniversary of the 2011 tornadoes that hit ...

about Yolanda Putman...

Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...

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