U.S. Census Figures Show Poverty Rates on Island Fall Below State Average


Poverty rates on Martha's Vineyard are lower than the Massachusetts average, according to new statistics issued this week by the U.S. Census Bureau. But the Census numbers, when viewed in detail, paint a stark picture of a middle-class community where income still falls beneath state averages even as housing costs climb to crippling levels.

The federal agency released its final demographic profiles for every town and county in Massachusetts at noon on Tuesday. These profiles go far beyond the statistics issued a year ago in the first major round of reports from the 2000 Census - particularly in their detailed explorations of labor and housing markets across the state.

Using figures from 1999, the Census Bureau found that 6.7 per cent of all families in Massachusetts fell below the federal poverty level. In Dukes County, that figure was 5.0 per cent. Looking more closely across the state, the Census found that 22.1 per cent of all "families with female householder, no husband present" fell beneath the poverty line. On the Vineyard, that figure was also lower, at 15.7 per cent.

One reading of these numbers is to conclude that poverty on the Island is less serious than elsewhere. But other numbers in the Census report suggest that a family's struggle to make ends meet is uniquely difficult on Martha's Vineyard.

For example, the Census found that in Massachusetts, the median household income in 1999 was $50,502. (Median means that counting all the households in the state, exactly the same number had incomes above and below that figure.) In Dukes County, the median household income was 10 per cent lower at $45,559. Just 24 per cent of all households in Dukes County enjoyed an income greater than $75,000 in 1999; across the state, 30 per cent of all households earned $75,000 or more.

Meanwhile, the median value of a home in Dukes County was $304,000 - nearly 64 per cent above the state median value of $185,700. (Remarkably, the 2000 Census found 798 homes on the Island valued at less than $200,000, a figure which any current shopper for an entry-level home on Martha's Vineyard would find exceedingly suspect.)

This sharp difference in home costs, the Census Bureau found, has serious repercussions when it comes to the business of managing a household budget on Martha's Vineyard.

Across the commonwealth, the Census found that 23 per cent of all homeowners - roughly one in four - had to spend more than 30 per cent of their monthly income on mortgage costs. In Dukes County, closer to one household in three - fully 32 per cent - had to spend such a high portion of income on the monthly mortgage bill. An additional 9 per cent devote more than a quarter of their monthly income just to paying the mortgage.

Looking at rental costs, the 2000 Census found a median rent of $740 in Dukes County - $56 more per month than the state median of $684. Across Massachusetts, the Census Bureau found that 27.2 per cent of all renters were able to find homes for $500 per month or less; in Dukes County, just 13.5 per cent of all rentals fell into this affordable category.

Both in its examination of the labor market and in its analysis of housing patterns, the 2000 Census tells the story of a Vineyard building boom that started in earnest a generation ago and is still going strong.

Looking at Massachusetts as a whole, the Census found that 19.5 per cent of all housing in the state has been constructed since 1980. In Dukes County, 46.5 per cent of all housing - nearly half the Island's housing stock - dates to the past two decades of Vineyard history. The Census found that 24.3 per cent of all the Island's housing stock, or 3,604 units, was built in the boom decade of the 1980s. But the 1990s were close behind: In the period from 1990 to March of 2000, the Census counted 3,296 new units of housing in Dukes County. That nearly matches all the new housing built in the 1960s (1,359) and 1970s (2,061) combined.

Evidence of the building boom was most pronounced in West Tisbury, where 55.4 per cent of all the town's current housing stock has been built since 1980. The effects were least vivid in Tisbury, which has the smallest land area and was already the Island's most populous town in 1980. In Tisbury, just 34.5 per cent of all housing dates to 1980 or thereafter.

In fact, the Census Bureau found that in 2000, the largest employment category in Dukes County was the construction industry, which accounted for 18.3 per cent of all jobs, nearly one in five. Across Massachusetts, construction jobs employed just 5.5 per cent of all workers. The Dukes County numbers showed retail sales accounting for 15.3 per cent of all jobs, slightly above the state average of 11.2 per cent.

In other employment categories, Dukes County more closely matched the commonwealth, with 15.5 per cent of its jobs in the educational, health and social services sector; 10.6 per cent in "professional, scientific, management, administrative and waste management services;" 10.3 per cent in "arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services," and 7 per cent in "finance, insurance, real estate and rental and leasing."

A reading of the 2000 Census for Dukes County reveals scant evidence of the Vineyard's rich agricultural and commercial fishing heritage. The Census found that just 1.4 per cent of the jobs in Dukes County fall into the category of "agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting and mining."

One category where residents of Dukes County differed sharply from state averages was in the area of self-employment. Across Massachusetts in 2000, the Census found that 6.4 per cent of all working people were self-employed. In Dukes County, that figure was more than three times higher at 22 per cent.

The new Census figures also shine a light on our evolving relationship with the automobile. For all its success, the Vineyard Transit Authority still has a ways to go toward breaking down the symbiosis of Islanders and their cars: while 8.7 per cent of all Massachusetts workers rode some form of public transportation to work in 2000, that figure in Dukes County was just 1.5 per cent. Happily, 5.2 per cent of workers in Dukes County said they simply walked to work - the state average was 4.3 per cent.

As for the commute to work, Islanders are faring considerably better than their peers across the commonwealth. The Census found that in 2000, the average worker spent 27 minutes on the morning and evening commutes. In Dukes County, the drive to work took an average of just 16.5 minutes.That might sound like a small difference, but it means the average Vineyarder spent nearly 90 fewer hours last year on the drive to and from the office.

There's always the option of working at home, and for many on Martha's Vineyard this means no daily commute whatsoever. The Census Bureau found that in Dukes County, 757 people - fully 10 per cent of the work force - worked at home in the year 2000. Across Massachusetts, that figure was just 3.1 per cent.

Islanders as a group did turn out to own more cars than average. Across Massachusetts, the Census found that 49 per cent of all families owned two or more vehicles in the year 2000. In Dukes County, that figure was 60.3 per cent.