COLUMN: New study shows poverty plagues all of Ohio, but we've got it worse than a lot of places

Dayton poverty rate shows problem is 'regional'

CINCINNATI — If you think poverty is just a Cincinnati problem — or just a city problem — think again.

A new study released by the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies shows that poverty is a problem in all of Ohio's cities and, to a growing extent, its suburban communities, too.

Called "State of Poverty 2015: Understanding Economic Hardships Across Generations," the study found that Cincinnati has the second-highest poverty rate among the state's largest cities, with 74,230 people living in poverty. That's a rate of 35.3 percent.

Gwen Robinson-Benning

Only Dayton has a higher rate, with 37.2 percent of its population living in poverty. For Dayton, a smaller city, that rate translates to 44,250 people.

"It's regional," Gwen Robinson-Benning told me. "You look at our region, and we're all comparable."

Robinson-Benning is the longtime president and CEO of Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency, which earlier this year released results of a study that it commissioned about poverty in Hamilton County.

RELATED: Study shows spread of child poverty crisis

The statewide study validated the local study's results and showed just how pervasive poverty has become across Ohio.

Some of the most sobering statistics:

• Nearly half of Ohio households lack the savings they would need to stay out of poverty for three months.

• That's important because while the U.S. has an official poverty rate of 16 percent, twice as many people experience poverty for short periods of time.

• One in three poor Ohio residents are concentrated in the urban cores of Ohio's cities.

• But nearly half of Ohio's poor live in suburbs. Cincinnati's suburbs, for example, had 139,753 people living in poverty in 2013, according to the study. That's almost twice as many people living in poverty as the city of Cincinnati has.

For Robinson-Benning, the message is clear: "We have to care about the least among us," she told me.

But if you don't believe that, and you're wondering why these statistics should matter to you, consider: The more poverty spreads, and the more difficult it becomes for people in poverty to lift themselves out, the more likely it is that the problems often associated with poverty will touch you, your neighborhood or your family.

'One Crisis Away'

Robinson-Benning said Cincinnati's suburban communities already are seeing that.

"In Mount Healthy, for the first time, Gold Star Chili gets robbed right there on the main street with people eating there," she said, referring to an armed robbery that occurred the night of April 25.

"Sharonville — all of them all of a sudden are seeing this rise."

The local Community Action Agency helps families throughout the county.

And while much of the talk about the Child Poverty Collaborative has focused on poor kids living in Cincinnati, the group's goal is to reduce poverty in the suburbs, too, said Lynn Marmer, the collaborative's executive director.

"There are a couple of suburbs that look a lot like the city," Marmer told me. "At least one (Lincoln Heights) has already reached out to us and said, 'We'd like to be a part of this.'"

Lynn Marmer

The Community Action Agency study showed that while some of our highest poverty rates locally are in the city, there also are high concentrations of poverty in communities such as Lincoln Heights, Mount Healthy, Norwood, Winton Woods and Forest Park, noted Ross Meyer. Meyer is vice president of community impact at United Way of Greater Cincinnati, the organization that is managing the collaborative's work.

The local United Way studies every poverty report that the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies issues, he said.

Meyer said he appreciates the way the 2015 report distinguishes between people living in chronic poverty — which are the people behind the U.S. poverty rate numbers — and those who live in "episodic" poverty. 

Episodic poverty is what can happen to a family living right on the edge when a car breaks down or a big medical bill comes due or a parent loses a job.

"So many people, even if they're just above the official definition of poverty, are one crisis away," Meyer said. "If one thing comes up, it can really put families below the line."

Can We Be 'Honest and Open'?

That's what the Child Poverty Collaborative, the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency and so many other local organizations and efforts are trying to address.

Yes, the child poverty collaborative is aimed at poor children. But poor children live in poor families.

That's why the collaborative's goal is to lift 10,000 children out of poverty and help 5,000 unemployed or underemployed adults get good jobs. Because you can't truly help poor kids without helping their families.

The Child Poverty Collaborative hired the RAND Corp. to analyze all the studies on poverty that have been done locally and figure out which programs are working and which are not.

Marmer said the collaborative would receive RAND's work in phases, and it expects to get the first report early this summer.

The community will get to comment on RAND's findings, and the collaborative will continue to hold dozens of conversations to hear the public's ideas and concerns.

RELATED: How you can help reduce child poverty here

Robinson-Benning said she hopes the community can be "honest and open" about the root causes of poverty.

"We never want to talk about institutional racism," she said. "When I see that African-American and Hispanic communities are more likely to be in poverty, then I have questions."

Philip Cole, executive director of the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, said at the news conference unveiling the new study that he hopes Ohio's decision-makers will examine state policies and spending decisions that make it more difficult for people to break loose from poverty.

He called on state leaders to drop the plan to charge poor people premiums for Medicaid. He asked them to find a funding source to treat drug addiction. And he wants them to look for ways to address transportation problems that make it difficult for poor people to get to the jobs that are available.

It would take considerable political will and courage to address those three items. And even then, that wouldn’t solve the poverty problem in Ohio or Greater Cincinnati.

"Poverty — if you believe in the Bible — will be with us always," Robinson-Benning said. "It is a permanent project."

Maybe so. But it shouldn't be a life sentence for our region's children or their families. And that's what the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency and Child Poverty Collaborative are working to prevent.

To read the full "State of Poverty 2015" report, click here.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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