Poverty Levels in Provo Are Too High

Earlier this week I reported that Provo’s median income is lower than the cities to which it is most often compared. And though the situation may be improving, that still means residents have less money to spend in the local economy, among other things, which naturally translates into a comparatively depressed commercial sector.

But the bad news doesn’t stop there.

Perhaps the most alarming figure in the census data is the number of people in Provo living below poverty level: 31 percent. And just like median income, that figure compares unfavorably with all the other cities I’ve been looking at*:

As is apparent, poverty levels in every other city hover near 20 percent, or roughly 10 points lower than Provo’s level.

By way of comparison, Provo has a higher percentage of people living below poverty level than old, eastern industrial cities like Buffalo (29.6), Cincinnati (27.2), and Pittsburgh (21.9). Next door in Orem — where there is another large university whose students are no wealthier than Provo’s — just 13.5 percent of the population is living in poverty.

In fact, Provo’s poverty levels aren’t much lower than those in Detroit (34.5), and Detroit is notorious for its decimated manufacturing sector and for its struggles with poverty.

Some people will look at these figures and immediately want to explain them. Provo, for example, has a lot of students. Many of those students support themselves, marry earlier than other young people, and have kids quickly. Provo also has a history as a blue collar town meaning many of the city’s older residents never became very high wage earners.

There is a lot of truth to these explanations. But it’s important to remember that all of the cities included on the graph have students as well. Chattanooga and Ogden also both have state schools without huge research agendas and in the latter case many students are even members of the LDS Church (the same is true in Orem). In other words, I chose these cities because they each represent a different kind of college town.

But most importantly, these explanations are beside the point. Whatever the causes, if Provo’s residents are poorer than those in other cities Provo will have less economic vibrancy. In other words, explanations themselves won’t change the problem, which is that lower incomes and more poverty are one big reason Provo feels less successful than other cities.

With higher poverty rates than other cities, it makes sense that Provo would have similarly higher vacancy rates in downtown buildings.

It’s also worth mentioning that people in Provo should be embarrassed by these figures. For strategic reasons, I’ve typically chosen to make mostly economic arguments on this blog — so for example that more money means greater vibrancy. But it’s also simply wrong for nearly 1 in 3 people in our city to be certifiably poor. Provo is a young, educated, business friendly community; having such a high poverty rate is unacceptable. It’s morally outrageous. And, unlike Rust Belt cities, it’s almost never discussed.

In any case, it also effects everyone because wealth and resources are factors that make or break places like Downtown Provo. If the community wants to be as thriving as other cities, these rates will need to change.

*For the next few posts I’m going to be sticking with my original five cities simply because it takes time to compile and graph all of this information. Some readers have suggested several other great possible additions and I hope to discuss them in the future, but for now the cities I’ve included seem to have sufficient diversity to make the point.

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16 Comments

Filed under Development, Downtown, economics

16 responses to “Poverty Levels in Provo Are Too High

  1. Nathan

    I’m interested in knowing more about how they classify “poverty”. It seems like a relative term. I live in what is probably one of the “poorer” income areas of Provo, but I’ll bet if you ask, a lot of the residents don’t see themselves as impoverished.

    True well-being is more than an arbitrary income level. I’ve been to some rust-belt cities, and it’s not hard to see that the residents of Provo are much better off, even if they make a few dollars less.

    Your point is made though in that less discretionary income around downtown will not fill vacant store fronts, when the higher incomes in Provo have easier shopping access to Orem.

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  3. Russell Bateman

    I certainly feel for individuals who struggle, want to and do help when and where possible. But it borders on the sanctimonious to say that we should somehow feel embarrassed. Is this a competition? Does it mean that Beverly Hills has already won some significant contest? Should Provo wave its arms over its head, wail and gnash its teeth? I missed the point somewhere. Perhaps the point was just to say something. Perhaps it should also be said that there is a disturbingly large number of people who are blond and blue-eyed in Provo and that we should hang our heads in shame before cities like El Paso or Los Angeles.

    • If poverty was like eye color — so innate and fairly fixed — I’d agree with you. But the reality is that poverty levels absolutely can be changed and there’s a mountain of information (that also spans the political spectrum) out there on how to do it. And it is sort of a competition; any city is fundamentally competing with other cities for resources (most notably labor, but also enterprise, entrepreneurialism, creativity, etc.). My post today on enticing young people makes the point that cities are indeed competing with one another for the people who will drive the housing market for the next two generations. However, perhaps I failed to articulate my point very well. Provo isn’t really in a competition with Beverly Hills, LA or El Paso, which is why I’ve never used them before. I’ve chosen a few cities — ones that residents and officials frequently compare Provo to — as my case studies. I think it’s worth studying how other, comparable cities have developed lower poverty levels in order to do the same in Provo.

  4. The US government’s definition of poverty leaves much to be desired. Plenty of ‘poor’ people have nicer TVs and even nicer cars than do many people who are not considered to be living below the poverty line. If ‘poverty’ rates in Provo were a big deal, the Provo-Orem area would not continue to be rated in the top five for great places to live and for having great business environment.

    • Again, I disagree. Just b/c someone has a TV doesn’t mean they have the potential for upward mobility, decent health care, a college education. It’s a red herring to look at a poor person’s one nice thing and say they aren’t poor. Could you effectively raise a family of 4 on less than $25,000?

      Metrics on business environment and poverty are looking at two completely different sets of variables. Perhaps there is an argument that its not a big deal, but high business rankings don’t prove it.

  5. Lee Jensen

    There is another way of looking at this. You could say that Provo is more accepting of lower income earners. There are a lot of factors that could go into that. For example immigration enforcement, a build of ethnically diverse populations, cost of living, or community support for poorer populations. If these are the factors then Provo should actually feel proud to host a more economically diverse population.

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  11. A large part of it is the lack of preparing our women for the work force and leadership.

  12. Creeped out that I wrote our.

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