Isabella County has the highest poverty rate of any Michigan county, but those numbers might be skewed by a high proportion of college students.
Like so many other counties in the U.S., many locals have been suggesting the high student population in the area might be throwing off the numbers.
According to the most recent U.S. Census data, 31.4 percent of Isabella County residents live in poverty. Mount Pleasant doesn’t fare much better, sitting at 44.7 percent.
It would be tough to tell that, though, based off business activity in the city. The construction of new businesses over the past several years, including Olive Garden and Firehouse Subs, indicates the city has enough disposable income among its residents to make a new business worthwhile.
That’s because the city’s large student population, a demographic not known for high income, is counted as impoverished by the Census Bureau.
“Students living in the area are counted during data collection, and that can throw off the numbers,” said Robert Bernstein, a U.S. Census public information representative. “A report bringing light to this kind of problem was written a few months back.”
A May report written by U.S. Census Bureau statistician Alenayehu Bisaw titled “Examining the Effect of Off-Campus College Students on Poverty Rates,” finds that Isabella County’s poverty rate plummets after subtracting the student population from the data collection.
“According to my research, counties across the country with large student populations have skewed poverty rates, some of which are quite significant,” Bisaw said.
The 31.4 percent poverty rate for Isabella County drops to 18 percent after subtracting the student population in the county.
That’s the largest change in percentage in the state after discounting student population, and for counties with a population between 20,000-65,000, it’s the fifth largest change in the United States.
Houghton County, home of Michigan Tech University, has the second highest change in poverty rate in the state at 6.6 percent.
Whitman County in Washington, home of Washington State University, has the highest change in poverty rate in the nation at 16.5 percent.
In smaller communities, where students make up a large portion of the local population, the socio-economic characteristics of the communities are directly affected by the characteristics of the student population, Bisaw stated in his report.
Bisaw’s analysis was motivated by numerous telephone inquiries to the Census Bureau asking what the impact the student population had on local poverty rates in a county.