CINCINNATI -- By the time Cheriese Lindsey was a senior in high school, she had four part-time jobs.
She graduated and kept working to support herself and her baby boy. But no matter how hard or how much she worked, Lindsey couldn't earn enough to get by without food stamps, subsidized housing and government health care assistance.
That started to change for Lindsey in 2011. She completed two Urban League of Greater Cincinnati job-training programs. Within a few months, Lindsey had a job as an on-site construction administrator for the renovation and expansion of Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine. From there she got a job with the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., or 3CDC.
By the end of 2012, Lindsey was earning enough to support her family without any government assistance. Now she works as a project manager and superintendent for Blackrock Construction where she has even more responsibility. But it's far from easy to support her 14-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter as a single mom who grew up in poverty.
"This is messy as hell," said Lindsey, who is 31. "There's just nothing about this that's easy."
Lindsey considers herself living proof that, as difficult as it is, it is possible for people to work their way out of poverty. And she's been working for months as part of the Child Poverty Collaborative in an effort to help thousands of other Hamilton County parents find the success she has. The group's goal: to move 10,000 children out of poverty within five years and help 5,000 unemployed or underemployed adults get jobs.
Lindsey and several other members of the Child Poverty Collaborative's steering committee spoke with WCPO in advance of the summit to discuss some of what the group's research has uncovered about:
• Why Cincinnati has such a serious poverty problem
• Where Cincinnati ranks nationally among large cities when it comes to child poverty
• Which groups of people the collaborative plans to target for help in order to reach its ambitious goals
But before any work begins, the people who have been leading the collaborative's work want to ask members of the public what they think about the research results and the group's plans, said Lynn Marmer, the collaborative's executive director.
"We're excited about the opportunity now to engage with the community on a large scale like this to say, 'What do you think? Have we got this right?'" she said.
The collaborative hired researchers to dig into the question of why Cincinnati has such a big poverty problem and also held scores of "community conversations" to talk with residents of Cincinnati and Hamilton County -- especially those who live in poverty.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about how Cincinnati ranked second in the nation in terms of the city's child poverty rate, according to a one-year Census estimate. That hasn't been true for several years, if it ever was.
Even so, the city doesn't look good when compared to other major cities in the U.S.
Cincinnati's poverty rate ranks sixth in the nation, according to the Child Poverty Collaborative's analysis of the latest U.S. Census data. That ranking compares the city to cities the same size or larger. When smaller cities are added to the mix, Cincinnati's childhood poverty rate ranks 10th.
Those rankings aren't nearly as high as second in the nation, of course, but that doesn't mean Cincinnati shouldn't be alarmed, Marmer said.
After all, the city still has more than 33,000 children who live in families with household incomes at or below the federal poverty level. The federal poverty level is defined as just $19,073 per year for a family of three that includes one adult and two children under the age of 18.
Not only that, most of those children -- more than 20,000 of them -- live in households that earn half of the federal poverty level or less. That equates to a household income less than $10,000 per year for a family made up of one adult and two kids.
The big question is why?
The answer is complicated.
"There is no one causal thing," Marmer said. "You talk to people in general conversation, they'll say we've lost the middle class because we've lost manufacturing."
There is some truth to that.
Roughly 72 percent of all jobs in the Greater Cincinnati region pay less than $50,000 per year, she said. And $50,000 per year is roughly what a household must earn to be self-sufficient if that household includes one adult, a preschool-age child and a school-age child, according to the collaborative's research.
The region also has a higher-than-expected number of households headed by single moms, Marmer said. And 15 percent of all children in the city of Cincinnati have experience with at least one parent in jail, she said.
There's another important factor that is far more difficult to talk about: Racism, said Donna Jones Baker, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio and one of the collaborative's six co-chairs.
The role of racism
"We have rules and regulations and laws and even practices, and I don't think people really recognize that they are inherently, and I hate to use the word, racist," Baker said.
"The laws, the rules, the regulations and practices hurt people," she said. "And we have to find fairer ways."
Baker pointed to Ohio's method of public school funding, which was ruled unconstitutional years ago because poor school districts tend to have less money to invest in their students' educations.
That has meant less state funding for poor, urban, predominantly black school districts, she said.
"When you have underfunded schools, mostly in the inner cities, you have lower graduation rates. You're not able to attract the best talent," Baker said. "What we're seeing is generations of poverty."
Black men also are incarcerated disproportionately, she said. And after they get out of prison, their criminal records make it far more difficult for them to get jobs to help support their children and families.
"This region, it's beautiful. There's beauty everywhere. I think that people are for the most part good people," Baker said. "But it feels sometimes like there's a fear that someone or the African-American community might get more than we deserve somehow. But I think that sort of mentality, that feeling, that fear is holding the whole region back from having even more than each of us has right now."
Baker said she's convinced that the Child Poverty Collaborative, and the community as a whole, must talk about and tackle the issue of racism in order to reduce the child poverty rate.
Based on its research and discussions with local residents, the collaborative already has an idea of which families and people it wants to target to reach its ambitious goals.
Instilling hope, saving babies
The families fall into four major groups, Marmer said:
• Single moms
The Women's Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation has estimated that about two-thirds of all local children who live in poverty live in households headed by single moms.
• Young people between the ages of 16 to 24, and many of them have children
There is a lot of excitement around helping this group, Marmer said, because of the feeling that they are still young enough to change their life trajectories and those of their children so they don't repeat the cycle of poverty.
• People who have been recently incarcerated and are returning to the region
People with criminal records often have a difficult time getting legitimate jobs to help support their children and families, and helping them would help families, too, Marmer said.
• And the very hard to serve
These are the families who are earning half the federal poverty level or less. The Child Poverty Collaborative's research has found that many people with those very low incomes are working, but they often are stuck in jobs for low-skilled workers that don't pay much, rarely offer benefits and generally have no opportunity for advancement.
None of the work will be easy, Marmer stressed, and the collaborative isn't looking to create a new nonprofit or social service agency.
"We are not trying to replicate something that's already in the community," she said. "But we will want to partner with the community."
That includes nonprofit organizations, social service agencies and churches that want to involve their parishioners in the work, she said.
Throughout it all, though, the collaborative aims to collect information from families to figure out what is working and what's not so the group can figure out how to help thousands more children and families in the years to come.
In the end, that should reduce the number of hungry children in the region, boost graduation rates, increase employment and the taxes that working parents pay and reduce the amount that the region spends on government-funded supports.
Mitchell Morris said he believes it would also reduce the violence that plagues too many of Cincinnati's neighborhoods.
Morris is the outreach coordinator for the Phoenix Program at Cincinnati Works, and he helps connect people with criminal records to the job training they need to get back on track.
He also has worked for years in the city's neighborhoods to try to reduce gun violence. And Morris said he became part of the Child Poverty Collaborative steering committee because he saw it as a way to work with community leaders in business, politics and churches to tackle the problems that leave so many young people feeling hopeless.
"If you don't think nobody cares about you, you have no hope, you live a reckless life because you don't care about nobody else," Morris said. "There's people that really, really care."
If that caring translates into results the way Morris hopes it can, it could be the answer he's been seeking for years.
"We could make a change with some of this gun violence," he said. "And save some of these babies that's dying in the streets."
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 about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.