The website credit.com released a story last month, “The Poorest Areas in America,” that listed the Talladega-Sylacauga micropolitan area as the fifth poorest area in the country.
“Bogus,” said Margaret Morton, director of the Sylacauga Alliance for Family Enhancement.
“Inaccurate,” said Talladega City Manager Brian Muenger.
“This really blew me out of the water,” said Morton, whose agency writes grant applications and operates programs to help the poor in the community. “I deal with these numbers all the time, and it’s just not accurate. If you go to the census and look at all that data, there is nothing that substantiates that.”
Morton said Sylacauga does have its share of poor people, but she pointed out that other areas in Alabama and the United States fare worse.
“Look at the Black Belt. Look at the Appalachian region. We’re not in that condition. … You can look at Census Bureau data, and if you listed the top 150 poorest areas in the United States, we wouldn’t be in it.”
Talladega’s Muenger saw the article when it first came out several weeks ago and “kind of dismissed it,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t know the website that ran it as a reputable news source.” But once the story started getting picked up by the websites of Alabama newspapers and television stations, Muenger dug into the details to provide a fact sheet for members of the Talladega City Council, in case their constituents asked them about it.
According to the original article, “In the annual American Community Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau releases statistics on the population. Age, race, location, income — these and more are outlined in the report, and the 2012 survey, released this month, gave insight into the country’s wealth distribution. Last year, the median U.S. household income was $51,371. To determine which areas have the highest and lowest median incomes, we used the bureau’s American Fact Finder tool to sort the data of 2,120 metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas.”
That’s where the error lies, Muenger said.
“This data is intrinsically flawed for several reasons, most importantly the fact that the margin of error for a single year of ACS data is over 10 percent,” he wrote in his report to the city council. “The three-year ACS data is a more accurate metric with a lower margin of error (4.3%), and this ACS indicates the median household income is $35,611. Additionally, the article only takes into account 22% of U.S. micropolitan areas. In addition to these sampling inconsistencies, the article employs no cost of living adjustment to properly scale the data.”
Muenger cited data from the Alabama State Data Center and the Jacksonville State University Center for Economic Development in saying the one-year figures didn’t give a clear picture of the area’s income.
The survey considers the Talladega-Sylacauga area a micropolitan area with a median household income of $31,547 and a population of 81,664 persons, though it does not define the borders of the micropolitan area.
The Census Bureau’s QuickFacts says Talladega County has a population of 82,291 with a median household income of $36,609. The city of Talladega is listed as having 15,676 people and a median household income of $31,437, and Sylacauga has 12,749 people and a median income of $31,764.
As a comparison, it shows Birmingham with 212,237 people and a median household income of $31,898. That’s a higher income than Talladega-Sylacauga’s, but lower than five cities that made credit.com’s list – Cookeville, Tenn., at $31,813; Martinsville, Va., at $32,196; Nacodoches, Texas, at $32,555; Forest City, N.C., at $32,836; and Dalton, Ga., at $32,858.
Others on the website’s list of poorest communities were Brownsille-Harlingen, Texas, $30,593; Roanoke Rapids, N.C., $29,930; Gallup, N.M., $29,696; and Lumberton, N.C., $28,293.
“We certainly have our challenges in economic development, but based on per capita income, Talladega County is essentially middle of the pack in Alabama,” Muenger said. “I felt like their sampling was inaccurate, and the Alabama State Data Center supports that as well. This article is meaningless other than the fact that it cast our area in an inaccurate and bad light for a microsecond in the news cycle nationally.
“Above a certain margin of error, statistics shouldn’t be considered useful,” Muenger continued. “When you’re looking at a 10 percent margin of error, it’s like they’re arbitrarily picking cities. I thought it was really unfortunate that our community and Sylacauga were even brought into that. People who have been around Alabama and throughout the nation have seen a lot of communities that suffer a lot more economic hardship than we do here. We have problems, but to say we’re the fifth poorest in America, I don’t think that’s accurate.”
Morton questions credit.com’s motives. “Who is credit.com? What do they want out of this? It’s just not valid,” she said.
“We’ve got some challenges and pockets of serious poverty, but to say we are in the bottom 10, that’s just bogus. We’re not even in the bottom 10 in Alabama counties.”
Readers responding on credit.com’s website raised similar concerns about the data on Lumberton, N.C. and Nacogdoches, Texas.
“Lumberton, N.C. is my adopted hometown of 17 years. The data you recently shared is erroneous,” one reader said. “Our population is 22,000 not 135,000 as reported.
“Our median income is $43,643 not $28,293 as reported. Our city therefore is NOT the poorest city in the USA (by a long shot). Not only that, but it is a city I am proud to be a part of and has twice been named an All-American city. Inaccurate reporting like this will taint people’s perceptions and discourage potential investment. I think you owe it to the residents of Lumberton to run a correction.”
In Texas, the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce also takes umbrage to the numbers. “We’re an interesting and unique community,” said Kelly Daniel, membership and marketing manager. “We’re an agricultural community, and home to Steven F. Austin State University. We’ve got great community leaders and volunteers, some of whom have roots that go back to the founding of our community. We claim to be the oldest town in Texas, and the university and our other major employers pull people from all over the country and all over the world.”
Daniel said Nacogdoches also has its share of poor people, but it shouldn’t be seen as a poverty-stricken community. “Our United Way provides a network of qualified, effective organizations that could be a role model for any community,” she said.
For what it’s worth, the numbers listed in the credit.com article can be found on the Census Bureau’s site.
In response to an email asking how the numbers were determined, Michael Schreiber, editor-in-chief and chief content officer of the New York-based website, gave the following directions:
For population, go to the Census Bureau’s American Fact Finder tool, click on Advanced Search, click "show me all,” type "population" into the search field, and select 2011 Population Estimates from the dropdown. From the left toolbar, select “Geographies,” select from “most requested geographies,” select a geographic type, then scroll down to Metropolitan Statistical Area/Micropolitan Statistical Area - 310 – All Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas within United States and Puerto Rico. Select PEPANNRES Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2011.
For Median Income: go to the American Fact Finder, click on Advanced Search, click "show me all,” then on the left, "Search using topics below." Under “Topics” select “People,” “Income & Earnings,” “Income/Earnings (Household).” Under “Geographies,” choose “Select from most requested geographies,” “Select a geographic type” then scroll down to Metropolitan Statistical Area/Micropolitan Statistical Area - 310 – All Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas within United States and Puerto Rico.
Select report S1903, Median Income in the Past 12 Months (In 2012 inflation-adjusted dollars) from the search results.
Schreiber said credit.com excluded Puerto Rico communities from its poorest 10 communities list.
He did not say if the website plans to write a follow-up article.
Closer to home, the article hit a nerve with Betsy Curlee, director of Talladega’s First Family Service Center.
“If the numbers are accurate, they’re not telling the truth,” she said. “If you just go through Alabama and through each town, I don’t see how we could be the poorest. There’s definitely a huge need here or I wouldn’t have a job. But I just don’t see us as being in the top 10 in the United States.
“When you read that article it just kind of makes you mad. It obviously hit a nerve with people in every town on that list. Nobody wants to be on that list,” Curlee said.
“But I think you have to take other things into account.”
Talladega’s Muenger said the story is insignificant in the long run.
“How does it matter in the context of 10 years or 100 years? It doesn’t. It’s a disposable story, if you even want to call it a story. But when it gets in state media, it does deserve a response. That was the basis of the email I sent out to our council.”
Contact Bill Kimber at email@example.com