SUMMARY: Poverty is a big problem in Alabama -- but not that big. The district's poorest county is Macon, with a 27.4 percent poverty rate. Statewide, between 17 and 19 percent of Alabamians live below the poverty line, and the rate in District 3 appears to be about the same.
ANALYSIS: Harris, a Lee County Commissioner and former school lunchroom worker for Auburn City Schools, is running against long-term incumbent Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, for the District 3 seat in U.S. Congress. Harris has run a populist Democratic campaign, arguing for the continuation of federal programs that help poor people and advocating more help for returning veterans.
That may be one reason why his campaign website calls attention to the district's dropout rate, its crime rate and its poverty rate, which, the site claims, is 51.3 percent district-wide.
Alabama is clearly among the nation's poorest states, but the figure from Harris would be alarming, if true. It would give the district, which includes Anniston and Auburn, a poverty rate higher than that of Puerto Rico (45 percent) and twice that of Mississippi (22 percent).
A glance at Census Bureau numbers shows that's impossible. The poorest county in District 3 is Macon County, which includes Tuskegee and the surrounding area. The poverty rate there is 27.4 percent. The most prosperous county is St. Clair, on the fringe of the Birmingham metro area, with 10 percent of its population below the poverty line.
The Star did a rough calculation, using poverty and population numbers from the 11 counties that are completely within District 3, and found that the actual poverty rate across those counties comes out to about 18 percent.
The district also includes parts of Montgomery County, where 18.9 percent of the population lives below the poverty line; and most of Cherokee County, where the poverty rate is 17.6 percent.
That would give the district a poverty rate not far from the statewide rate. The Star's county-by-county calculation used 2009 county numbers, the latest available. That year, the statewide poverty rate was 17.5 percent. In 2010, the statewide rate bumped up to 19 percent, according to a Census Bureau report.
Those numbers put Alabama in the top tier of poorest states, near Kentucky and New Mexico and just below Mississippi and the District of Columbia.
More recent county-by-county numbers from groups such as Voices for Alabama's Children and the Alabama Poverty Project differ slightly from the Star's Census-based figures, but only by a couple of percentage points -- and nothing in the ballpark of 51 percent.
Harris told The Anniston Star he got the 51.3 percent figure from campaign worker Sybil Kornman, a former community college grant writer.
"She's got all the research," he said. "She's got the numbers."
Kornman said she pulled the number from a state report on a six-county area at the core of District 3. In those six counties, including Calhoun, 51 percent of public school kids are getting free or reduced-price school lunches, she said.
That's perfectly plausible. According to figures from the Alabama Department of Education, 57 percent of Calhoun County kids, 63 percent of Cherokee County kids and 70 percent of kids in Chambers County were on free or reduced lunch in the 2011-2012 school year.
Educators often use the free lunch rate as a measure of poverty in their school districts, and they have their reasons.
For one thing, kids are more likely than the general population to live in poverty. The Census Bureau sets the child poverty rate in Alabama at 27.7 percent, fourth highest in the nation.
Another reason is that the free lunch program is available to kids from families living at 130 percent of the federal poverty rate. According to the federal government, you're officially poor if you're supporting a family of four on about $23,000 per year. Some anti-poverty advocates argue that that number is set too low, and that the free-lunch number is a more accurate measure of who's struggling economically.
"One problem with the poverty number is that it doesn't take into account the cost of housing," said Linda Tilly, of Voices for Alabama's Children. "Of course, the free lunch rate is based on the poverty rate, so it carries that problem with it."
Still, the free lunch rate isn't the federal poverty rate, which Kornman acknowledged as soon as The Star mentioned the matter to her.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I should have done more fact-checking myself."
Within an hour of The Star's call to Kornman, the website had been changed to acknowledge the source of the poverty number, though the 51.3 percent figure remained on the site.
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.