A federal study using data taken before Augusta and Richmond County consolidated ranks the city as one of the most poverty-stricken medium-sized cities in the nation.
The central city still has its problems, local officials said, but the post-consolidation population boost from 1996 should improve the city poverty rate in future studies.
The U.S. Housing and Urban Development report, Places Left Behind in the New Economy, released last month ranks Augusta No. 5 on the top 10 high-poverty, mid-sized central cities list.
It estimates 42.7 percent of Augustans lived in poverty in 1995 based on the city's actual poverty rate of 33.3 percent in 1989 -- a full seven years before the city's population of 40,000 more than doubled when rural and suburban areas of Richmond County became part of the city limits.
The HUD study lumps Augusta in with communities like Camden, N.J., and East St. Louis, Ill. The list is topped by Benton Harbor, Mich., with a 64.3 percent poverty rate, and rounded out by Hartford, Conn., with 35.2 percent.
"The data today would look different," said Jurgen Brauer, an economics professor at Augusta State University. "It would look less bleak."
But officials are also quick to point out the fact that a high number of people in the central city live in poverty, which, by 1999 federal standards, applies to individuals with monthly incomes less than $687 per month.
University of Georgia Sociologist Doug Bachtel said the inclusion of rural and suburban populations into the mix merely dilutes the negative statistics, and that an increasing number of affluent and middle class residents are moving to Columbia County.
"The poverty hasn't gone away just because Augusta has consolidated," he said.
The HUD study was designed to show that many segments of America, such as Appalachia, faded industrial cities and Indian reservations have not benefited from the nation's robust economy during the past several years.
Mayor Bob Young said he had not seen the study but "wasn't surprised" by the results. He said the city's 0.2 percent job growth last year and the 3,500 families on the waiting list for public housing show the city has room for improvement.
"We still have pockets of poverty like any other city," he said. "Augusta needs job creation. We've got to put these people to work."
He said he is encouraged by recent redevelopment initiatives in the Laney-Walker neighborhood, where the Augusta-Richmond County Health Department building is under construction and the second phase of the Armstrong Galleria shopping center is underway.
To find the report, point your Internet browser to www.hud.gov/pressrel/leftbehind/toc.html
Damon Cline covers business for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3486.