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Researcher outlines local economic outlook
December 05, 2013 Jerry Purvis   

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Interested people from around the community gathered on a snowy Tuesday night at the Harms Center at Western Nebraska Community College to learn results from an economic survey of the Scotts Bluff County area.

Jerry Deichert with the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska – Omaha was in town to present his findings. The study of all of the state’s 49 legislative districts had been commissioned by a legislative committee headed up by State Senator John Harms of Scottsbluff.

According to Deichert’s research, Scotts Bluff County is doing poorly in terms of poverty, education and an aging population, when compared with the rest of the state.

One of the first major areas Deichert discussed was population trends in the state, and Scotts Bluff County in particular. Locally, the number of births and deaths has been about equal since 1994. Currently, the most populous age group is the 50 – 54 bracket.

But Deichert said a problem local leaders must address is out-migration among young people ages 20 to 30. Without those young people, there are fewer families, fewer children, and smaller schools. And as people who remain in the area age, the gap grows even larger.

Poverty, unemployment and education were other major areas discussed during Deichert’s presentation. According to his study, poverty in Scotts Bluff County between 2007 and 2011 was 14.7 percent, with a state average of 12 percent. For children under 18 living in poverty, the number was 22.3 percent, with a state average of 16.1 percent.
Unemployment in the county was six percent, compared with 5.4 percent for the state. But Deichert said those numbers can be deceiving, because people who can’t find jobs often leave the area. Also, those who have given up searching for a job aren’t counted in the unemployment figures.

Both Deichert and Harms agreed that education is a key to improving job and economic conditions. In the study, among residents 25 and over, 86.5 percent of them had obtained a high school or GED diploma. But only 19.6 percent of the same residents had earned a college degree.

Harms arranged for Deichert to come to Scottsbluff to present his study so local residents could see the challenges before them. Interested parties are being asked to help identify the specific problems the area has and develop solutions.

After Deichert fielded several questions, Harms made an appeal to come together for those solutions. For several years, he’s worked in the Legislature to remove the barriers that keep people from continuing their education.

“The only way out of poverty is through education,” he said. “We’re a knowledge economy in competition with the world. A high school education is a bare minimum today. It will be more than that in the future.”

Harms said Nebraska is now fourth in the nation for households with both parents working. “That doesn’t necessarily create poverty, but it does create an issue for the public schools. A couple of years ago, more than half of children entering the Scottsbluff schools were at risk. That means the child doesn’t have the basic skills to be a kindergartner. Often when both parents work, they don’t have a chance to help with that child’s early development skills. When they’re five years behind, it’s not realistic to ask the schools to make that up.”

He added that Scottsbluff has also implemented numerous programs to help bring those children up to grade level. If the community is going to address poverty, it must be done through the school system.

After the meeting concluded, interested people met to develop a game plan to address the problems, many of which will only improve in the long term.
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