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Census: Gwinnett poverty rose rapidly in '03

LAWRENCEVILLE - Poverty in Gwinnett County grew at a much faster rate in 2003 than it did at the state and national levels, according to Census data released last week.

The estimates show that 57,163 county residents - or 8.2 percent of the population - lived in poverty in 2003.

That 1.2 percent increase from 2002 compares to an 0.3 percent increase for Georgia and an 0.4 percent increase for the nation.

Also, the estimates report that the county's median household income shrunk in 2003, while it grew statewide and across the nation.

The median household income in Gwinnett dropped $1,532 from 2002 to 2003, but for all of Georgia it went up $62, and nationwide it climbed $909.

Despite the numbers, Gwinnett's household income was still higher than the state or nation's, and the segment of its population living in poverty was lower than that of Georgia or the United States as a whole.

Also, the estimates released last week only provide a snapshot of Gwinnett in 2003 - a point when it was still reeling from the loss of high-tech jobs that evaporated when the economy tanked.

"Almost half of our manufacturing was in high-tech, which got hammered in the recession," said county economist Alfie Meek.

Meek believes Gwinnett's median household income has resumed growing since 2003, when it was an estimated $56,636.

It is probably growing again because the county's sales tax collections have jumped, along with the number of new jobs being added - all things that indicate the local economy is rebounding.

"Last year (the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) jumped 10 percent. That would lead me to believe that that median income number is not going to be a decline," Meek said.

The county's changing demographics - its minority population is booming, fueled in part by immigrants moving here for jobs - is playing a role in the poverty uptick, Meek said.

University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel agreed.

"Because of the growing diversity and the growth of the Hispanic population you will probably see an increase in the poverty," Bachtel said.

However, those moving to Gwinnett are probably not contributing significantly to any increase in poverty, Bachtel said.

The newcomers are lured here by work, and chances are they will only end up in poverty if they hit a patch of bad luck, such as being hurt on the job or injured in a car wreck.

Instead, "intergenerational poverty" or poor children being born to poor parents, is probably helping drive the rise in Gwinnett's poverty, Bachtel said.

That, and more people from senior citizens to office workers are living close to the poverty line, putting them in danger of a financial tailspin if they become ill or suffer some other misfortune.

"With this incredible diversity comes a growing opportunity to have more folks living in poverty," Bachtel said.

Regardless, only six Georgia counties had a higher median household income than Gwinnett County in 2003. Also, only six had a lower poverty level, according to the Census data.

The federal government uses the Census Bureau's Small Area Income and Poverty estimates to dole out federal funds to state, county and city governments.

The estimates are derived from federal income tax returns, food stamp program participation, federal economic data, the 2000 Census, and other poverty and income that are more broad.

For a family of four, the Census Bureau's poverty threshold for 2003 considered one with an income of $18,810 or less to be poor.