Tarrant County poverty, income data show the long reach of the downturn

Reverberations of the recession echoed across Tarrant County last year as incomes dropped, the poverty rate rose and even the institution of marriage declined, according to a broad spectrum of census data released Tuesday.

While Texas has been widely considered to be a top bet for riding out the downturn, folks in Tarrant County and the rest of the state absorbed some painful economic blows, according to the 2009 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In Tarrant County, the median household income slid from $56,251 in 2008 to $53,726 in 2009, the new figures show. Nationally, the median income dropped 2.9 percent to $50,221, while in Texas it fell 2.4 percent to $48,259, according to the data.

The nation's poverty rate rose from 13.3 percent to 14.3 percent in 2009, but the rise was even larger in Tarrant County, where it jumped from 12.2 percent to 14.7 percent. It climbed even more among Tarrant blacks (from 18 percent to 24.5 percent) and Hispanics (from 19.5 percent to 25.2 percent). In Dallas County, the poverty rate rose to 19 percent from 17 percent in 2008.

The poverty level in 2009 was set at $21,954 for a family of four.

"This data reflects the economic decline across the country with work hours down and income stagnant or declining," said Steve Murdock, a Rice University sociology professor and former Texas state demographer. "It verifies the pervasiveness of the economic downturn, and Texas has not been immune."

The hard times in North Texas have been illustrated by other statistics, as the jobless rate has risen, city budgets became strained and home foreclosures soared.

But the decline in family income hits home. It's probably the most significant since the Great Depression, Murdock said. "It is obvious that the economy is down, and people are suffering the consequences," he said.

The downturn's far-reaching human impact has been readily apparent at the Fort Worth-based Texas Food Bank Network, a coalition of 19 food banks across the state.

"Food banks are the canary in the coal mine for the economy," said JC Dwyer, the network's public policy director. "We've seen a 45 percent increase in the number of clients over the last four years and we've seen a 14 percent increase in poundage we've put out from June 2009 to June 2010."

Donations have risen, but demand still surpasses supply, Dwyer said.

"Folks have been stepping up, but everything we get is going out. We distributed around $20 million of food this summer alone," he said.

From fiscal 2009 to 2010, which ended June 30, the Tarrant Area Food Bank saw a 42 percent increase in families being served by social service agencies it distributes food to, spokeswoman Andrea Helms said.

Families served rose to 44,286 from 31,234, she said. In fiscal 2010, the program distributed 11,000 tons of food, compared to 8,800 the year before, and 7,000 in fiscal 2008.

Among other trends:

The recession, which technically ended in June 2009, also slowed mobility as fewer people sold houses or moved for new jobs.

Nationally, 85 percent of Americans were living in the same residence as the year before. In Texas and Tarrant County, 82 percent were in the same home. In 2006, only 79 percent of Tarrant residents had stayed put.

Continuing a decades-long trend, the number of married people fell to a record low in 2009: 52 percent of adults 18 and over nationwide, compared with 57 percent in 2000.

In Texas and Tarrant County, that rate was 51 percent.

Marriage rates have been slowing for years due to a rise in the divorce rate and an increase in the number of unmarried couples living together, Murdock said. The economic downturn is also causing more young adults to postpone matrimony as they struggle to get on their feet financially, he said.

The number of Tarrant County residents without health insurance grew last year, but so did the number of those with insurance, as the county's population grew to an estimated 1.8 million, the data show.

Last year, 409,205 people lacked health insurance, up from 375,886 in 2008; 1.363 million people did have it, up from 1.357 million.

Last year, 1.1 million Tarrant residents had private health coverage, and 378,902 had public coverage, such as Medicare, Medicaid or CHIP.

There were some nuggets of good news in the blizzard of data.

Following the national trend, the average commute for Tarrant County workers dropped to 25.2 minutes, from 26.3 minutes the year before, with fewer people working.

The county's dropout rate declined from 18 percent in 2008 to 17 percent in 2009.

The cost of housing also declined slightly in Tarrant County, with the median monthly payment for mortgaged owners at $1,465, down from $1,485 in 2008. Nationally, the median was $1,505.

"The economy is impacting people across the spectrum," Murdock said. "As is often the case, it has the biggest impact on those at the lowest economic strata."

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808