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U.S. census statistics show impact of recession on D-FW

Poverty is up and income is down, but those are just a couple of the recession resets illustrated by recent census figures.

The statistical snapshot for 2009 shows how the downturn has altered the social spectrum in Tarrant County. Fewer families are moving. More kids now have two parents who work. More women are choosing not to get married. And more people are seeking financial assistance, even in tony suburbs.

The shifts are even more pronounced when compared with the heady days of 2006: Local home prices were rising, businesses were hiring, tax revenue was growing and many homeowners were flush with fat bonuses from Barnett Shale gas leases.

Tarrant County's median household income (in 2009 inflation-adjusted dollars) shrank from $54,835 in 2006 to $53,730 in 2009, and the dependence on food stamp benefits swelled from 6.8 percent to 8.6 percent.

The portion of people living below the poverty rate -- $22,050 for a family of four -- climbed from 13 percent to 14.7 percent during the same period. Child poverty rose from 18.5 percent to 22.1 percent.

The picture drawn from the Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey is the most jarring adjustment that Rice University demographer Steve Murdock has ever seen.

"Changes in income, poverty, mobility -- all of these together, in my 30-year career, I have not seen anything that is quite the breadth and depth of this," said Murdock, a former Texas state demographer and U.S. census director.

The recession's long reach has been inescapable, said Bud Weinstein, an economist at Southern Methodist University.

"It's been pervasive. No one has been untouched -- the rich, the poor -- and you look at the trickle-down and you see the big jump in the poverty rate and the big drop in per capita income [$27,020 in 2006 to $26,593 in 2009] and that's just indicative about how the D-FW economy has really been slugged in the last couple of years," he said.

"We've got a long way to go to get back to where we were 21/2 years ago," Weinstein said.

The precipitous drop in tax revenue has forced cities like Fort Worth to whittle away at a $73 million budget gap and to rethink how it does business, Mayor Mike Moncrief says.

"Everyone was drinking the Kool-Aid in 2006. There have been lessons learned that will allow us to come back stronger," said Moncrief, who maintains that Fort Worth and Tarrant County have still been the best place to weather the storm.

"We were not bulletproof. ... The city has learned that we have no option but to address our pension system now. We have to change the way we have done business in the past," he said.

Financial setbacks have battered even once-prosperous professionals, said Leo Sabo, an associate pastor of financial stewardship at the 17,000-member Gateway Church in Southlake.

"What I see compared to 2006 is drastically different. We're seeing different types of people asking for counseling and financial assistance," Sabo said.

"The people asking for assistance would have never asked for it three or four years ago," he said. "When the recession hit, a lot of these people lost good jobs and they have drained their resources."

Many others had simply been living beyond their means, relying on easy credit to dip into their home equity.

"That is not a new problem, but it is now hitting people because they lost their income, their unemployment has run out and their savings are exhausted. Now the crutches are gone," he said.

The fiscal fallout has ratcheted up stress levels across Tarrant County as families cope with losing jobs, having less income and combining households under one roof, experts say.

"It's been a noticeable difference in my practice," said Janet Douglas, a licensed clinical social worker in Fort Worth.

"It trickles down into families. People are moving back in with their families," she said. "A lot of people are coming in for depression after the loss of their jobs. It has disrupted the family system."

The money problems have hit people of all ages and incomes, Sabo said. The jolt has been particularly jarring for young adults trying to pay off student loans, he said.

"Now what we are seeing are young people coming out of college with amazing amounts of student loan debt," Sabo said. "The majority have private loans, so the interest rates are high. They are drowning in debt."

At the same time, Murdock said, workers who have lost jobs are going back to college to improve their skills, and current students are pursuing graduate degrees because of the dearth of jobs.

"The seniors are scared to death. When I talk to students, you can see that look in their eyes. They don't know where they can find a job," he said.

That financial insecurity is also mirrored in declining marriage rates, Murdock said.

In Tarrant County, the rate of never-married females 15 and older rose from 26 percent in 2006 to 27.5 percent in 2009. For males, it increased from 31.5 percent to 32.6 percent.

Working parents are also feeling the squeeze.

Among Tarrant County families with kids ages 6 to 17, the number of households with both parents working has increased from 67 percent in 2006 to 70 percent in 2009.

The slim job market and real estate slowdown have curbed mobility.

In Tarrant County, the percentage of people living in the same home year-over-year has been rising since 2006, from 79 percent to 81.7 percent in 2009. In the same period, the percentage of people moving from another state dropped from 2.8 percent to 2.1 percent.

"That is recognition that it's not better in other places. In most cases, what you might get from a better job won't make up for paying a mortgage for a house you don't live in. Moving takes resources," Murdock said.

Weinstein is not optimistic about a quick fix.

"My forecast for D-FW is very much the same as my forecast for the nation as a whole -- it's going to be a hard slog and it's going to be stop, start. I think it's going to take a couple of years for all the dust to settle for households to fix their balance sheets," he said.

And the memory of hard times is likely to linger.

"I think we are going to see it have a long-term effect on spending patterns. Everybody is sobering up."

Steve Campbell,

817-390-7981

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