Fay Morgan doesn't need any new census data to tell her the poverty rate appears to be climbing in Allegheny County.
The executive director of North Hills Community Outreach sees the increased need each day in the people coming through the agency's doors in search of help. There were the 388 who needed assistance in the last fiscal year avoiding eviction, and the 2,309 who were hungry, and the 3,004 who had utility payment troubles, plus many others.
In all, the 6,083 households served by the agency's programs across 50 municipalities last year were 323 more than the year before, and that was on top of an increase of 845 the year before that.
"We work with a lot of families newly struggling," Ms. Morgan said. "A lot of families have saved for a rainy day, but sometimes they can get two or three rainy days."
Those would be among the families reflected in an estimate released by the U.S. Census Bureau today that Allegheny County's poverty rate increased to 13.6 percent in 2011 from 12.0 percent in 2010. The estimate is from the American Community Survey, a sample interview of about 2 percent of U.S. households that replaced the long form once used in the decennial census.
A flood of ACS information for cities and counties has just become public through the Census Bureau's website, but the local poverty data stand out because they present a vastly different picture from a year ago.
When 2010 information was released, it suggested the poverty rate for Allegheny County and the seven-county Pittsburgh metropolitan area had actually improved since 2009, contrary to national trends. That positive local measurement meshed with other economic data, such as the unemployment rate, that for several years portrayed southwestern Pennsylvanians as favorably enduring the national recession.
The new poverty data show things getting worse nationally and across Pennsylvania in 2011, but at a less severe rate of change than the county's.
The national poverty rate was estimated to increase from 15.3 percent to 15.9 percent between 2010 and 2011 and the state's rate to climb from 13.4 percent to 13.8 percent, according to the ACS. The seven-county metropolitan area had a new poverty rate estimated at 12.6 percent, compared to 12.2 percent a year earlier.
The city of Pittsburgh historically has a higher poverty rate, which -- like the county -- showed a sharper increase, from 22.3 percent to 23.8 percent.
Some officials cautioned that it can be dangerous to make too much out of single-year changes in the ACS estimates, because of questions about reliability. That showed up in an opposite way with Beaver County data that suggested its poverty rate dropped from 16.1 percent in 2010 to 12.2 percent in 2011, one year after the rate was estimated to have shot up.
"I'm surprised. We haven't had any major companies come in or have a large number of new jobs come in," said Bruce Simmeth, executive director of United Way of Beaver County. "To be honest, I haven't seen any changes here since 2010 to account for fluctuations."
Also, the ACS national data on poverty conflict with a separate government report, the Current Population Survey, which used different methodology to report a week ago that the official poverty rate for the nation remained unchanged between 2010 and 2011.
Despite any concerns about accuracy, the ACS provides the most comprehensive local data available about poverty, and the many agencies and officials who deal with low-income households in Allegheny County are inclined to agree that the problem is getting worse -- not better.
Robert Nelkin, president of United Way of Allegheny County, said that about one-third of the individuals calling the agency's new 211 assistance line are seeking help for the first time. That's a higher percentage of newcomers than would have been calling United Way in the past, he said, and three-fourths of callers want help with basic needs such as avoiding eviction or foreclosure, keeping their utilities connected or obtaining food, clothing or furniture.
Of the newcomers, he said, "These are people who had jobs and were doing OK, and because of prolonged unemployment or underemployment they're really struggling. ... They're the newly needy."
One question is how the ranks of such individuals could be swelling if other local economic indicators such as labor force numbers continue surpassing comparable state and national numbers.
One possibility, said Christopher Briem, a University of Pittsburgh-based economist and demographer, is that the local economy's success could be attracting more potential workers here as competitors for the jobs than are available.
"And I think poverty has remained persistent in parts of the community over a long time," Mr. Briem said. "There are still depressed mill towns that have not done a great job of redeveloping. There's a disparity in who's been benefiting from the regional economic growth of late."
He and Reggie Young, deputy director of Allegheny County's office of community services, said it's difficult to conclude anything from one year of data, as opposed to longer-term trends. Mr. Young said county officials can't always tell if demands for help are increasing because some programs, such as Head Start, place a cap on how many people can be served.
Of the estimate that local poverty has worsened significantly, Mr. Young said, "I am somewhat surprised -- just in general it seemed that Pennsylvania was doing better in terms of unemployment. ... You're going to see a variety of different statistics out there, but it's hard to say whether we're going up or down."
Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a nonprofit focused on hunger issues, said he's ready to believe the new data are accurate based on an influx of new people turning up at food pantries in the region.
"This is a reminder from the Census Bureau that what may look like good economic news from time to time needs to be seen through the screen of whether this is actually trickling down to people in great need," he said, "or are we turning our backs on the poor people."
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255.