(Note: Some of the examples in this tutorial are based in Georgia, where this site was created. That said, virtually all of the advice is based on county-level data that is applicable to and available in every U.S. state.)

Why you should cover poverty and housing in your county:

  1. Housing answers a basic need required by everyone: shelter.
  2. Housing indicates economic growth or the lack of it. It also serves as an engine for employment and industrial development.
  3. In his book, One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, Mark Rank writes that 60 percent of Americans will live below the poverty line at some point during their lives.
  4. Since the collapse of the housing market, home foreclosures have reached record rates. Foreclosure can move families into homelessness-increasing the impact of other housing deficits.
  5. Rising unemployment rates may increase the number of middle-class workers who slip into poverty.
  6. Low-quality housing affects children. Children born into poor homes become part of the cycle of poverty that needs to be broken.
  7. With the current depressed economy, more Americans try to pay off more debt and news reports carry information about the importance of credit in daily life. However, we also struggle with unanswered questions. How did things go wrong? How can we maintain-and expand-access to credit while protecting the consumer and preventing a disaster from reoccurring? Writers from academia and public service sectors write about these and other issues in Borrowing to Live: Consumer and Mortgage Credit Revisited, which is edited by Nicolas P. Retsinas and Eric S. Belsky. The authors dissect the current state of consumer and mortgage credit in the United States and help point the way out of the current impasse. The book may be ordered at the Brookings Institution bookstore.

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How to measure the opportunity to cover poverty and housing in your county:

Answer these eight questions:

  1. What percentage of families in your county live below the poverty line?
    For statistics on Hall County, I visited the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service site and found that 10.8 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. This information may also be gathered from the Georgia Facts site.
  2. What is the unemployment rate?
    For Hall County, data on the Georgia Facts site show that unemployment is 3.8 percent. This information can also be found on DataPlace and the Georgia Department of Labor site.
  3. What is the poverty rate in your county?
    Dataplace states that Hall County’s rate is 12.4 percent.
  4. What is the average rent and housing cost in your county?
    On average, rent costs $631 in Hall County and the average home value is $156,861, according to DataPlace.
  5. What is the median annual household income in your county?
    DataPlace shows that Hall County’s median income is $44,908. A rule of thumb for journalists to remember is that households should spend no more than 30 percent of their income toward housing. Be sure to compare your answer from this question to question 6.
  6. What is the foreclosure rate in your county?
    RealtyTrac gives Hall County’s foreclosure rate as one in every 302 houses.
  7. What is the homeownership rate in your county?
    DataPlace rates Hall County at 71.1 percent. Be sure to also find the national percentage of homeownership at DataPlace to provide a context for your statistic. Home ownership means more stability, permanence and wealth in a community.
  8. What percentage of people in your community experience housing hardships?
    Statistics from DataPlace show that 48.6 percent of households in Hall County with incomes had a housing burden. The UGA Family and Consumer Sciences site provides the housing wage for each county. A housing wage is the amount a full-time worker must earn to afford a two-bedroom house. In Hall, that wage is $14.50.

Answer these three questions:

  1. In your county, how many children less than 6 years old were screened for lead poisoning? Visit the Georgia Department of Human Resources site for information on lead screening. In Hall County, 2,539 children were screened in 2006.
  2. How many children tested in the elevated range of 10-19 ug/dL and how many tested positive for lead poisoning, which occurs in amounts greater than 20 ug/dL?
    The Department of Human Resources states that Hall County’s number for 10-19 ug/dL is 35 and >=20 ug/dL is 13. Mental and physical illnesses caused by lead poisoning can inhibit a child’s ability to achieve in school. The poverty cycle then continues, with the child unable to get higher education and therefore a middle-class job.These numbers make more sense by reading this state department Needs Assessment report:

    Childhood lead poisoning is a serious health problem for the nation and for the state of Georgia. Lead is a neurotoxin. It is harmful to all individuals and no safe threshold has been established. It is particularly harmful to the nervous systems of developing fetuses and young children. It can harm a child’s brain, kidneys, bone marrow, and other body systems. It can cause a reduction in IQ, impaired learning ability, reading and learning disabilities and behavior problems.

    The CDC defines an elevated blood lead level as ≥ 10 ug/dL (micrograms per deciliter). Recent studies indicate that there are harmful effects from lead poisoning at levels less than 10 ug/dL.

  3. What percentage of houses in your county was built before 1950? Before 1980?
    Go to the Department of Human Resources site to find the number. In Hall County, 7.9 percent of homes were built before 1950 and 42.8 percent of homes were built before 1980.Older homes run a greater risk of containing lead-based paint. Paint becomes a danger when it begins to peel. Those who live in poverty usually live in older homes and do not have the means to remove the lead-based paint.


A step-by-step approach to finding and reporting important and engaging stories

Look at your answers to the questions above. Which topic (or topics) offers the most opportunity to cover poverty and housing in your county? Pick one for this step-by-step approach to finding and reporting important, engaging stories.

The answers to the questions above will help you determine which aspect of housing needs the most coverage in your community. Did you find that the working poor are unable to find affordable housing? Or is government-subsidized housing not meeting the needs of your county? How does your county’s foreclosure rate differ from neighboring counties, and why? This data will provide a sturdy foundation to any story told with colorful narrative.

As with any story, you’ll need to:

  • Consult secondary sources
  • Locate key documents
  • Mine key sources of data
  • Interview sources
  • Observe the story in play

Let’s take, as an example, the topic of housing for the working poor: What steps might you take to find and report a story about housing for the working poor in your county?

Step one:
Log onto DataPlace. Find the median annual household income in your county. This will give you a statistical idea of if your county is in an impoverished area.

Step two:
Find the percentage of families in your county living below poverty line by going to the Economic Research Service site. This statistic will let you know how serious the poverty is in your county.

Step three:
Research the average housing costs by visiting DataPlace. Compare this with the median annual income. Is this number higher than one-third of the median annual household income? If so, there is a problem with affordable housing in your area.

Step four:
Obtain the percentage of people with housing hardships. Go to DataPlace to answer this question. Then log onto UGA’s Family and Consumer Sciences State of Georgia Families site to find the housing wage of your county. The percentage of families with housing hardships will let you know how large this issue is for your area.

Step five:
Interview the director of a housing non-profit organization in your community such as Habitat for Humanity. Inquire about the demand in your county for affordable housing for the working poor. Ask how many people in the area cannot find affordable housing.

Step six:
Interview leaders in charge of food banks, community action agencies, churches, and other non-profit community organizations. Ask questions to gauge the working poor demand for assistance. How many working families cannot afford to pay all of their bills? To put meals on the table?

Step seven:
Contact representatives of the planning commission or housing agency in your county government for an interview. These individuals can provide not only statistics, but also insight into what the government plans or is currently doing about housing problems for the working poor.

Step eight:
Talk with homeless shelter officials about the number of people in the community who have a job but cannot afford housing. Ask if a homeless shelter resident would be willing to be interviewed. Ask him or her about wages earned and why that amount is not enough to obtain housing.

Essential resources

Here are essential resources that should help you cover poverty and housing in your county.

Key sources of data

  • Economic Research Service is a site within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides county-level and national-level statistics on poverty as recently as 2007.
  • Georgia Facts provides in-depth demographic data for Georgia’s 159 counties. The site is maintained by the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
  • Georgia Department of Labor gives unemployment rates and breaks down the number of residents who have filed for unemployment insurance by month and year.
  • RealtyTrac requires a subscription for detailed information. However, even without a membership, one can search foreclosures by city, state and zip code.
  • UGA Family and Consumer Sciences has a special section on its site dedicated to county-by-county reports on the state of Georgia’s families. The site provides in-depth information such as housing wages, how many babies were born in a given year and family economics.
  • Georgia Department of Human Resources contains mountains of health information. This first address below gives the total number of lead poisoning screenings by county.
  • Another important site gives the number of homes in Georgia’s counties built before 1950 and before 1980.
  • US Census Bureau gives additional poverty statistics from 2005, which is some of the most recent data available.

Key sources of documents

Key sources for experts

  • Your local planning commission
  • Your local real estate board
  • Your local chapter of Habitat for Humanity
  • Other local nonprofit agencies (i.e. food banks, churches, and various charities)
  • Your local board of county commissioners
  • Local homeless shelters