A close look at the poverty rate

City manager: Lock Haven a place of hope

Gregory J. Wilson

LOCK HAVEN — Everybody loves a good list.

The top five unsolved crimes, American’s 10 favorite foods, the top 20 celebrities who don’t floss their teeth regularly — we will read those lists wherever we see them.

A new list has been produced recently, by PennLive.com, of the 35 communities in Pennsylvania “with the highest percentage of residents living in poverty.”

Lock Haven was listed as No. 2.

The list was created from a quick tally of three numbers for each community: its population, percentage of residents living in poverty, and the number of people living in poverty.

Up-to-date statistics can be found in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012-2016 American Community Survey Five-Year Estimates.

Lock Haven’s population is 9,724, according to these estimates.

When figuring the number of residents living in poverty, the Census Bureau did not use people who live in institutions, like Susque-View. Once they are removed, the estimates show 3,310 city residents live in poverty. This is a total of 42 percent of the population counted for these particular estimates.

It sounds dire. Is Lock Haven really the second “poorest” community in Pennsylvania, as the PennLive headline states? No, it isn’t, according to Lock Haven City Manager Gregory J. Wilson.

It does have “the second highest rate of poverty,” he said, and that is not the same thing.

The numbers are alarming at first glance, but according to Wilson, they reflect a few simple facts about our city, things that make Lock Haven the community it is.

Lock Haven University is one of the largest factors. LHU students who live off campus count as city residents for these poverty statistics, Wilson said — 1,378 students. (Those who live on campus are considered to be living in an institution, so they aren’t counted for these estimates.)

Most students don’t hold down a full-time job while taking a full load of classes, so they are generally below the poverty line.

A number of communities on the list have colleges or universities, including Bloomsburg and Clarion. Indiana, home to the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is No. 1.

Another factor in Lock Haven’s statistics is that almost all of the Clinton County Housing Authority’s units are inside the city’s limits, Wilson said. A quick look at the housing authority’s website shows there are 350 housing units in Lock Haven, with 640 bedrooms.

Lock Haven is also home to five residential clusters that offer subsidized housing to eligible senior citizens and disabled residents, places like The Opera House Apartments, Kephart Plaza, the new Lock Haven Court.

The county housing authority reports that the average tenancy for one of its units is just 18 months, and Wilson sees that as an encouraging trend. It appears that individuals and families who need help with housing are able to work themselves out of the county units and into places they can afford to rent themselves.

They are actively bettering themselves — and so are university students who are studying toward their degrees.

“People are coming to the city for help getting out of poverty, and I’m glad they’re finding it here,” Wilson said.

The complexion of the city is slowly changing, and upward mobility might be one of the moving forces behind that change. Lock Haven is seeing more families and fewer “households,” he said. Households are people living in the same house or rental unit who aren’t related.

The change is slow, Wilson suggested. Many rental units in Lock Haven are geared toward students, not families who are working their way to better financial health. So, a significant number of these families apparently rent in a neighboring municipality where they can find an affordable place and still be a part of the greater Lock Haven area.

Wilson also noted that people with mobility problems can find a place to live in Lock Haven and can drive their motorized chairs to the grocery store and back.

The city has curbcut ramps that accommodate wheelchairs, and it plans to continue adding and updating these ramps, Wilson said.

“The city has spent tens of thousands of dollars over the years to make sure that everyone is welcome and comfortable and can get around in the community,” he said. “I’m glad that people who are disabled have chosen to live here.”

A total of 410 city residents who are not living in an institution are both disabled and living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau estimates.

Lock Haven has about 1,100 elderly residents, age 65 and older, and 185 of them reside in an institution (and identify Lock Haven as their home). This leaves 915 senior citizens to be counted toward the poverty rate, and 112 of them — 12 percent — are below the poverty line, Wilson said.

The reasons are varied. One may be that grandparents suddenly finding themselves taking care of grandchildren, which changes their family make-up, he suggested.

Even with 11.3 percent of the population officially classified as elderly, Lock Haven’s median age is much lower.

It’s 23.

The city has 3,003 college students, including all the LHU students who identify themselves as Lock Haven residents, as well as residents commuting to Penn State, Pennsylvania College of Technology, and other colleges.

That’s one-third of the population.

And, 18 percent of Lock Haven’s population is made up of children and teens under 18. They total 1,790, and about 1,000 of them are in poverty. Some are university students who aren’t 18 yet, but there are still about 700 kids and teens who are tethered to families below the poverty level, Wilson said.

When he looks at the numbers in depth, he sees families who are working to better themselves.

“The majority are really trying to do their best,” he said.

The median “household” income in Lock Haven was $27,000 in 2017, he said. Households include university students living off campus.

The median “family” income for the same year was $44,000, he said.

Out of the entire city, 59 people are working full time and have been doing so for at least a year, yet are living below the poverty level, he said. These are the working poor of Lock Haven, the people who often fall through the cracks between the various social services available.

“When everybody’s (social media) comments on this die down, I hope they don’t forget about the working poor,” Wilson said.

“Poverty is really complex,” he explained. “It’s very easy to look at the numbers and say, ‘Look at all these poor people.’ But look at the other numbers… You see a lot of people working very hard.

“You don’t have to feel hopeless,” he added. “There’s a lot of hope here.”