College Station – One of America’s poorest cities?

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The Census Bureau recently released a press release on household income and poverty rate. The official report, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance in the United States: 2006 Report can be downloaded here [PDF]. Aside from the widely publicized reports that household income has rise between 2005 and 2006 in addition to a [slight] drop (12.6% to 12.3%) in the nation’s poverty rate, the little aside about the country’s poorest cities went largely unnoticed.

The nation’s poorest cities (250,000 or more) are Detroit; Buffalo, N.Y.; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Miami; and St. Louis and similarly among the smaller cities (65,000 to 249,999), the poorest are Brownsville, Texas; College Station, Texas; Camden, N.J.; and Edinburg, Texas. While most of the mentions are obvious, I was very surprised to see College Station, my current place of residence considered as the second-poorest city in the nation.

As you know, College Station is home to Texas A&M University and out of its population of 67,000-odd, nearly 45,000 are students. The poverty rate is calculated using the median household income of the residents and it is widely known that incomes of students is likely to fall under the poverty threshold at least in real dollars. But does that necessarily constitute poverty? You wouldn’t consider the students of a prestigious national university poor, right? Firstly, students especially undergraduate students and international students are supported financially by their parents or other guardians who do not reside in the city. So although the students may earn below-poverty wages, they aren’t necessarily poor in the traditional sense. Secondly, even if the students are not supported financially, they are incurring debt which is often cleared once they graduate and start earning. Depressed wages while in college is perfectly natural and lost earnings are considered more of an long-term investment than a short-term liability.

If you have ever visited or lived in College Station, you would be hard pressed to find poverty indicative of its ranking in the census list. Bryan, the twin city adjacent to College Station is more likely to be poor in the traditional sense. You might wonder why does College Station find a place in the list when there are other college towns like Athens (GA), Ann Arbor (MI), East Lansing (MI), Gainsville (FL), etc elsewhere in the nation. First, the other towns may have a population that falls short of the 65,000 mark that was used to demarcate cities in the list and second, some of the campus towns may be closer to larger metropolitan cities which absorb most college students as residents.

In light of this information, it would be helpful if the Census Bureau excluded predominantly college towns (50% or more student population) from its list of poor cities or at least indicate so in the rankings.