I was recently inspired to look across Oregon for examples of communities that have experienced positive changes in big, tough social areas. So I pulled together 2000 and 2007-2011 county-level data on poverty and unemployment to see if any counties stuck out. Lo and behold Hood River is the only county in Oregon where poverty and unemployment actually decreased between 2000 and 2007-11! So, what’s up with Hood River County and what’s their secret to success?!
Depending on which stats you look at, from which agency, it looks like Hood River County’s overall economic wellbeing either improved between 2000 and 2011 or degraded slightly/severely in this period. The discrepancies can at least partially be explained by measurement errors, but the overall story is essentially that Hood River County didn’t fair too poorly during this 11 year period, despite the Great Recession. This suggests two things: be careful which statistics you use to tell your community’s story of success or failure and there just may be some things we could learn from Hood River County about moving the needle on these tough areas.
Evidence for the Nugget:
1. According to statistics from the US Census Bureau, Hood River County experienced declines in poverty from 2000 to 2007-11 and improvements to employment from 2000 to 2007-11
According to data from the 2000 long-form of the US census and the 2007-11 American Community Survey (both representing samples of the population), in Hood River County:
- Poverty declined from 14% in 2000 to 10% in 2007-11
- Child poverty declined from 19% in 2000 to 10% in 2007-11
- Moderate poverty (people whose incomes are 185% or less of the poverty line) declined from 34% to 33%
- Extreme poverty (people whose incomes are 50% or less of the poverty line) declined from 5% in 2000 to 4% in 2007-11
- Unemployment declined from 6.5% in 2000 to 5.5% in 2007-11 (07-11 contains four years of the recession, so the recession will have a large statistical effect on the average. If the 07-11 rate is close to the 2000 rate then it’s apparent that unemployment in Hood River County, on average, was not particularly affected by the recession)
- Employment in the agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining industry sector increased from 14% in 2000 to 17% in 2007-11
2. According to statistics from the Oregon Employment Department and Oregon Department of Education, however, Hood River County experienced increased unemployment and poverty across the 2000 to 2011 period.
- According to the Oregon Employment Department, unemployment in Hood River County increased from 6.5% in 2000 to 6.8% in the 2007-11 period (which is comparable to the ACS period); but increased from 6.5% in 2000 to 7.9% in 2011
- According to the Oregon Department of Education, the percentage of students in Hood River County public schools who qualified for the free or reduced price lunch program because they lived in households with income 185% or less of the poverty line increased from 43% in 2000 to 60% in 2011
3. There is a lot of measurement error in all of these estimates.
- Data from the long-form of the census and from the American Community Survey all come from a sample of the population. Each statistic has a margin of error between +/- 1% to +/- 4% for Hood River County. When you bear these margins of error in mind, the only statistic for which we can be 95% sure actually differed between the two time periods in Hood River County was the child poverty rate — that decline of 9 percentage points surpassed the margins of error in both years.
- Unemployment data from the Oregon Employment Department are estimates as well. See this article for an explanation of the methods they use to calculate Oregon’s unemployment rate: http://www.qualityinfo.org/olmisj/ArticleReader?itemid=00002668. They estimate that the state’s unemployment rate in June 2013 had a margin of error of +/- .8%. County level rates will have slightly larger margins of error. Applying even this .8% margin of error to the Hood River County estimates of unemployment nullifies the increases reported by the Employment Department for the time period discussed above.
- Data from the Oregon Department of Education about eligibility of the student body for the free or reduced lunch program are also estimates, but the error in this statistic isn’t a function of pure, random sampling it’s a function of self-selection of the sample. In order to qualify for free or reduced lunch, the parents of children enrolled in school have to voluntarily complete an application for the program on which they report household income and the number of household members. If there is any reason for parents to feel uncomfortable about this reporting, perhaps they’re embarrassed about their income, they’re earning income under the table, or they’re undocumented immigrants, they may forgo completing the application. If, however, they feel safe reporting this information then they are more likely to do so. This means that increases in the percentage of kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch could be due to actual increases in the number of kids in low-income households or increases in the number of parents who feel comfortable reporting their low-income status.
Given all the measurement error, it’s probably safest to say that the overall economic wellbeing of Hood River County residents didn’t change much between 2000 and 2007-11, but that it did improve for some kids whose families were able to move out of poverty and into moderate poverty.
Now here’s the story, because in Oregon overall we definitely have seen statistically significant declines in the economic wellbeing of people between 2000 and 2007-11, and other Oregon counties experienced significant declines. So despite the less-than-perfect data, there does seem to be something positive going on in Hood River County worth further investigation and possible replication! Does anyone have any ideas about why the county fared so well in this period?
- We should investigate what’s going right in Hood River County. Is it their industry composition; the relationship between local institutions like the school system and vulnerable populations like Latinos and low-income families; is it something about their community culture; or something else? If we identify some factors, we need to understand why they contribute to the well-being of Hood River County. Then we can consider if it might be possible to replicate in our communities. If we do try to replicate we have to monitor that it does work in our community, and modify or scrap it if it doesn’t.
- Many of us orient ourselves toward developing programs that will “move the needle” on some significant economic and social outcomes that are measured using population estimates. So what does it take to really move the needle on these outcomes? The discussion today suggests that, statistically, it means we should aim to make an impact that results in a 5% to 10% improvement in the thing we’re trying to affect. If we don’t aim that big, we might not see any change at all because smaller changes won’t be statistically significant.
- Aiming big for most of us will probably mean aiming for multiple, long-term, incremental improvements. It’s doubtful that Hood River County found a silver bullet that took six months to implement. Have a long-range plan for improving population level outcomes that are measured with estimates, and make sure you track your short-term wins by evaluating your program’s impact on the people it has directly served. Don’t forget that it will take a long time for the needle to move in the population. This also means, don’t pull the plug on something that’s aimed at affecting population level outcomes, that’s only been around for a few years and you haven’t seen the population change (yet). If you’re seeing the desired changes in the participants, these changes in them persist over time, and these observable changes are DIRECTLY related to the population level change you want to see, then keep faith in the program for the long-haul.
What else do you take away from this discussion of Hood River?