New Census figures show how Greater Cincinnati's childhood poverty rate just keeps getting worse

'That should be a moral crisis'

CINCINNATI – Greater Cincinnati's persistent childhood poverty problem is getting worse instead of better, according to new estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the city of Cincinnati, nearly half of all children – a stunning 47.2 percent – live below the federal poverty threshold, according to five-year estimates released as part of the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. That's more than 30,000 children within the city limits.

For the Tri-State as a whole, one in five kids – or 105,000 children – live below the federal poverty level.

Both those estimates are worse than comparable figures released last year at this time.

"It just demonstrates what we're up against in Cincinnati," said the Rev. Troy Jackson, director of The Amos Project, a group of congregations in Greater Cincinnati that is dedicated to improving the community. "I think what has served Cincinnati well for a very long time is that we are a very generous community, and a lot of good will has gone a long way. But sooner or later, we have to address some structural issues, what our priorities are and where we are allocating resources."

The Census data can be tricky. Figures released earlier this year showed that the city of Cincinnati's childhood poverty rate actually had decreased a bit. Those figures were one-year estimates, however, which the federal government releases earlier in the year to help government agencies plan their budgets.

The five-year estimates, which are the most accurate for smaller geographic areas, allow for comparisons between larger cities and the smaller areas within them.

The city of Cincinnati's childhood poverty problem remains worse than many large cities in the Midwest. Detroit and Cleveland have higher rates of childhood poverty, according to the new data. But Cincinnati has a larger percentage of poor children than Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville or Pittsburgh.

And Cincinnati's childhood poverty rate is more than double the national rate.

Local government and business leaders have made addressing childhood poverty a priority.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley unveiled a regional childhood poverty task force during his State of the City speech in October.

High-profile clergy, business and civic leaders will lead the Task Force to Reduce Child Poverty. The group's ambitious goal is to lift 10,000 children out of poverty within five years and help 5,000 unemployed or underemployed adults get jobs. These latest figures show that work is more important than ever, said Ross Meyer, vice president of community impact at United Way of Greater Cincinnati.

"That's exactly why we came together and helped pull this task force together," said Meyer, who will be working with the group. "Despite a lot of good efforts – and a lot of individual programs that are making a difference – it's just not enough to add up to make a big enough difference."

Cranley said in October that the task force would make its recommendations by June 30, 2016.

People on the front lines of helping the region's poor children and families say relief can't come fast enough.

Throughout 2015, WCPO has been shining a spotlight on the problem of childhood poverty with ongoing reports online and on air.

The initial stories for WCPO's Below the Line series focused on three specific Census tracts in the region with high concentrations of poor children: an area in Boone County; an area in Middletown; and a portion of Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

 

The latest Census estimates show that childhood poverty rates have increased in the Boone County and Middletown Census tracts over the past year. The percentage of poor children in the Over-the-Rhine Census tract has actually decreased slightly, according to the new numbers, but the rate remains high with nearly 93 percent of the kids there living below the federal poverty level.

The growing need in Boone County is clear, said Christopher Mueller, director of Brighton Family Center.

The organization opened an office and food pantry on Shelby Street in Florence last July, and it has served hundreds of Boone County families since then, he said.

"There's no shortage of folks who need our services," he said.

Mueller said many families visit seeking food for the night.

"We've had to find creative ways and funding sources to get food down there," he said. "We're serving more families every week."

 

Boone County Public Library has a bus that visits mobile home parks in the county's most impoverished areas. Photo by Emily Maxwell | WCPO

It's a little more difficult for Suzanne Prescott to gauge how childhood poverty is growing in Middletown and Butler County because there has been such high demand for Head Start and Early Head Start there for years, said Suzanne Prescott, early childhood programs director for the Butler County Educational Service Center.

"We always have a wait list," she said. "We only serve probably 20 or 25 percent of the eligible kids in Head Start."

And while the Census might show the childhood poverty rate decreasing a bit in Over-the-Rhine's northeastern quadrant, Wesley Chapel Mission Center still sees plenty of need for its after-school programs.

"We are seeing more mothers who are employed in minimum wage kind of jobs part-time," she said. "There's a little bit of income that wasn't there before, and I think that's making a little bit of difference."

But all of the children – grades kindergarten through high school – who attend Wesley Chapel Mission Center's after-school programs live in households below the poverty line, she said.

"We're actually seeing more children than we ever had before," Costello said. "There were a couple of days in the fall that we hit 100 children in our after-school program."

The problem throughout the city – and the region – is all the more shameful considering the fact that Greater Cincinnati got such great economic news just a few weeks ago, Jackson said.

"We have the fastest-growing economy in the Midwest, and at the same time we have these kind of poverty statistics for children," he said. "And that should be a moral crisis."

Early Head Start home visitor Kaely Phillips, right, stops by for a visit with Erika Pelayo and her son, Rueben. Photo by Emily Maxwell | WCPO

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 this year.

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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