Athens ranked as 8th poorest community in U.S. but ranking likely needs an asterisk

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By Kayla Beard





According to a report recently released by 24/7 Wall Street ranking the 30 poorest communities in the United States, Athens, Ohio is the eighth poorest small city in the nation. That likely comes as a surprise to local folks who see this college town as relatively middle class, especially compared to many other communities in Appalachian Ohio.

The rankings were based on recent household income data, derived from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, for every American town with a population between 1,000 and 25,000, according to the report. Boroughs, census-designated places, cities, towns and villages were all considered and in the end, Athens had the dubious honor of making the top 10.

Before going overboard in lamenting Athens’ poverty ranking, it’s important to put it into perspective. If one didn’t count non-permanent resident OU students in the city’s population, Athens likely wouldn’t be anywhere near eighth poorest in the nation. 

The report from 24/7 Wall Street states that the median household income in Athens is $22,204, the median home value is $164,300, and the poverty rate is 54.7 percent.

In past interviews and research on poverty rankings that place Athens County as the poorest county in Ohio, it has become clear that when college students are included in Census data for Athens, they make the community seem much different statistically than if students weren’t counted. Most OU students who live in the city earn little or no income.

“A good portion of university/college students are captured within the U.S. Census for the city of Athens,” said Athens Mayor Steve Patterson on Wednesday. “Since most of them are students attending college, they aren’t employed… or they are employed at jobs making minimum wage, plus.”

Athens City Auditor Kathy Hecht agreed, noting that the city has about 20,000 student residents and 5,000 non-students. “Most students either don’t work outside of classes or are working part-time at minimum wages,” she said. “So 80 percent of our population is making minimum wage or slightly above.”

“We’re not a big city by any stretch of the imagination,” Patterson added. “Therefore, (when college students are factored into poverty metrics) it gives the appearance that the city is one of the poorest in the nation.”

According to Athens County Auditor Jill Thompson, the report also may have used “less current data” than that from tax year 2017. Thompson said based on calculations using buildings and land for residential homes for tax year 2017, the median home value is a little lower at $149,305. The average residential home value, however, is $163,377, Thompson explained in an email Wednesday morning. “I’m not sure (from) where the article is pulling their data or for which tax year,” Thompson said.

While Athens County has been considered the poorest in the state in the past, it’s unusual for the city to be included in such a ranking.

According to a report released by the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in 2014, 32 percent of Athens County residents were living in poverty. That countywide number makes the 54.7 percent statistic generated for the city in the 24/7 Wall Street ranking seem suspect.