This is a story about a number.
Last week, Forbes magazine declared Macon was the seventh-most impoverished city in America. Forbes ranked Albany as fourth.
As bold as it is and as meaningful as it seems to be, the number seven in the ranking isn’t clear-cut. It’s derived from rough estimates drawn from a federal survey. Actual facts diverge more from the estimates.
For Doug Bachtel, a University of Georgia demographer who studied Bibb County in the 1990s, the numbers don’t matter as much as what they’re trying to portray. Bachtel said if Macon’s near the bottom, it needs to improve and not worry about the exact ranking.
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The Forbes magazine report used five sets of numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, called the American Community Survey. The magazine studied these figures — per-person income, money earned by the bottom 20 percent of the population, the number of people who earn below 50 percent of the poverty line, the number of people who get public health care, and unemployment numbers. The figures were combined and weighted, so some of the statistics are considered by Forbes to be more important than others. The magazine declined to discuss how those figures were weighted.
The American Community Survey taken during the course of last year offered a broad look at the Macon Metropolitan Statistical Area, which comprises Bibb, Crawford, Jones, Monroe and Twiggs counties.
But some of the numbers are far from concrete.
Take food stamps, for instance.
The Macon area was estimated in 2008 to have 13,431 families on food stamps — give or take 2,222 or 16.5 percent. Adding to the uncertainty of the actual percentage of families receiving food stamps is the fact that the total number of families in the area had its own margin of error.
Those margins can dramatically change how the Macon area fares when compared with other communities. A Telegraph analysis suggests that within the margins of error, the Macon area’s food stamp rate could be the nation’s 18th worst, or the 184th worst, of about 500 American cities. In other words, Macon was near the bottom of the barrel — or not far from the middle.
Robert Bernstein, a spokesman for the U.S. Census Bureau, said rankings may not be accurate or proper when the margins of error get high.
“If the ranges for two (cities) overlap, then they’re not statistically different from each other” and shouldn’t be ranked, he said.
ON THE STREETS
The reality of Macon’s poverty is both simpler and more complex than any single number shows.
Anthony W. Hubbard, who turned his U.S. Army training into a career as a paramedic in Ohio, compares poverty to a puzzle: There are plenty of interlocking pieces that have to come together successfully, and the big picture isn’t always clear.
Hubbard, 56, has been struggling to cure his own poverty for five years, since his sister died of breast cancer and he was unable to pay debts to keep the house they’d been living in.
“I was forced into homelessness,” said Hubbard, who has been in Macon four years. “It was the proverbial blood from a turnip. There’s a lot of people like that.”
Hubbard spoke from inside the Loaves and Fishes Ministries of Macon, where he sees plenty of people getting help. In September, Loaves and Fishes gave groceries to 267 people, as well as 871 lunches and 1,602 snacks.
Hubbard plans to apply for food stamps and gets disability payments.
“That doesn’t pay all the bills all the time, so sometimes I have to stretch and ask for help,” he said.
If anything, the real numbers of area residents getting food stamps is both better and worse than the estimates suggest. The Census Bureau estimate suggests that about 15 percent of the families in the Macon MSA were getting food stamp help last year. True state records from the middle of last year show more like 20 percent of the families were receiving food stamps. By July of this year, the figure had climbed to 24.4 percent. One in four Macon-area families were tapping into food-stamp aid. As bad as those numbers are, other parts of Georgia are doing worse.
Judged by the percentage of family receiving food stamps, Bibb County alone — not the entire Macon MSA — ranks just 38th worst in the state, meaning about one in four Georgia counties have a higher proportion of families getting that state help. Bibb County’s rate of 26.9 percent is much lower than the state’s worst, Clay County in southwest Georgia, where 39.6 percent of families get food stamps.
Dougherty County, home to Albany, weighs in at about 34.4 percent. Bibb is only marginally worse than Clayton County (26.4 percent) just south of Atlanta and Augusta’s Richmond County (26.2 percent).
Catherine Meeks, a retired professor of Socio-Cultural Studies at Wesleyan College, tends to take all surveys with some “healthy skepticism.” She, like Bachtel, argues the exact numbers and especially the ranking aren’t quite so important.
“I think we need to be more concerned about our city rather than what somebody else is saying. All this kind of information makes me think is, ‘OK, that’s right,’” she said. “I don’t know whether we’re seventh or 10th or 15th, but I know we’ve got problems we’re trying to solve.”
Bachtel said the Macon area’s problems are tough to eradicate. They’re seen in problems as basic as unwed mothers, many of whom have to raise their children in poverty. The children tend to not value education as much, setting the stage for another challenged generation, he said.
“You get a lot of poverty, and that equals social problems,” he said. “And the problem is, it’s inter-generational. When you grow up with that, it’s really hard to break the cycle.”
Bachtel should know. He has researched Bibb County’s demographics, writing in 1995 that “the county has one of the highest manufacturing wage rates in the state, but continues to have a large, hard core, poverty-stricken population. Macon is located in a historically conservative, religious area with strong family values, yet over half of all births are to unwed mothers.”
Hubbard, the homeless veteran, said he’s struggling to get out of his own cycle of poverty and says it’s hard for anybody to escape. And not everyone will accept all help without getting resentful.
“You can only help out where people let you help out,” he said.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.