OU Impacts Poverty In Athens County

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A recent study that showed Athens County having the highest percentage of low-to-moderate income residents in the entire state is deeply affected by the city of Athens being the home of Ohio University. Data shows that off-campus students indeed skew the numbers, showing a major increase in poverty levels throughout the area.

This article is the first of a two-part series to further examine the data and its impact on Athens County.

Where does Athens County stand?
Athens County has the unique status of housing a large-scale university while itself having a very small population when compared to other “college towns.”

The first thing to know is not all university students are included when looking into poverty rates. This census data comes from the American Community Survey, which is done yearly and asks deeper questions about personal finances compared to the regular population count conducted federally every 10 years.

Students who live in on-campus housing such as residence halls are not included in the survey. Also not included are any students who live off-campus with parents or relatives, as their poverty status is considered to be the same as their family’s status.

When looking at city and countywide poverty rates, the only people counted are local residents and off-campus students who do not live with parents or relatives.

With that in mind, the numbers clearly show that students make a big difference. Overall, Athens County has 32 percent of residents living below the poverty level. But when excluding those specific off-campus students, that number is 21 percent.

For the city of Athens, the numbers are even more extreme. Overall, the city has 54 percent of residents living below the poverty level. Without the students, the number is 23 percent, a whopping 31 percent difference.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Athens is one of 1,602 cities (or populated places) throughout the country with a population between 20,000 and 65,000. Of those, Athens has the third-highest change in poverty rate when the students are counted.

On the county level, Athens County is one of 1,062 in the U.S. with a population between 20,000 and 65,000. Among those, Athens County has the 11th-highest change in poverty rates when including the students.

Athens County Job and Family Services Director Jack Frech said these numbers show a clear link between the university and local economic figures.

“We’ve always known that the students skewed these numbers, but we never knew how much,” he said. “This has been an issue for ever and ever … there’s no doubt the students have an impact.”

What makes Athens County different?

Ohio University’s main campus is one of 11 public universities in the state with enrollment above 10,000. Yet, Athens County’s 11 percent change in poverty rate when factoring in students is significantly higher than all the others.

The only university that comes close is Bowling Green State University in Wood County, which sees its poverty rate increase by 4 percent when including students. Of the other nine counties in this sample, most see modest changes within one or two percent.

Population unquestionably plays a role in Athens County. The 10 other counties with a public university above 10,000 students have total populations more than double what Athens County has. When all 11 counties are combined, the average county population housing a major state university is more than 520,000. Athens County has a population of about 65,000.

To show how different Athens County is, look at the University of Cincinnati in Hamilton County. They have nearly twice as many students as Ohio University does, but Hamilton County’s poverty rate changes by only a single percentage point when students are factored in because the county has 800,000 total residents.

Athens County, meanwhile, has more than 20,000 students at the main campus with a considerably smaller total population surrounding them.

In Sunday’s edition of The Messenger, the second-part of this series on poverty rates will examine the relationship between Ohio University and Athens County. Jack Frech explains what needs to happen for the two sides to begin to understand each other.