Cincinnati mayoral candidates explain their child poverty-reduction plans

Nearly half of city's children live in poverty
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-18 19:11:19-04

CINCINNATI -- With nearly half of Cincinnati's kids living in poverty, all three candidates for mayor agree the city's shameful child poverty rate must be reduced.

When it comes to how they want to do that, however, their ideas differ dramatically.

RELATED: Child poverty in Tri-State remains high

As part of WCPO's ongoing Below the Line series on child poverty in the region, we interviewed all three:

• Mayor John Cranley, who is running for a second term. He initiated the Hand Up Initiative poverty reduction strategy after being elected in 2013 and has been an active co-chair of the Child Poverty Collaborative, which spent 2016 studying the problem and crafting recommendations.

Rob Richardson, the former chairman of University of Cincinnati's Board of Trustees. He argues the city could do more to adopt specific policies that help poor families.

• And Councilmember Yvette Simpson, the only candidate for mayor who grew up in poverty. She is a proponent of empowering poor communities to help themselves.

Here's how each of them said they want to help lift local children out of poverty to strengthen the city as a whole.

The power of a 'momtourage'

Simpson's approach to reducing child poverty stems partly from personal experience. Her mom was mentally ill, and her dad was a drug addict. Simpson's grandmother raised her and her sister, and they lived in a housing project in Lincoln Heights.

Although Simpson's grandmother had only a seventh-grade education, she valued learning and made sure Simpson attended a preschool that was within walking distance of their home.

That quality preschool education provided a strong foundation for Simpson, and mentors encouraged her to work hard in school, get a job to learn the value of earning a paycheck and to go to college.

"My family didn't get out of poverty," Simpson said. "But I did."

That makes Simpson confident that other Cincinnati kids -- especially young people in their late teens and early 20s -- can lift themselves out of poverty even if their parents or grandparents remain poor.

"Kids are in poverty because their families are in poverty," she said. "But there may be interventions that we can give to children today so that even if their family status doesn't change, they can break that cycle."

Simpson stressed that she is not opposed to the Child Poverty Collaborative, which has the support of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati and many of the region's largest corporations and nonprofit organizations. But she said the big changes that the collaborative is working on could take decades to have an impact. 

And while job-training programs are good, she said, few people living in poverty can afford to go eight or 10 weeks without a paycheck in order to get training that will help them get better jobs.

Yvette Simpson Photo by Phil Didion for WCPO

A more grassroots approach, based on what poor people say they need, must happen at the same time, she said.

"They both have to work together. You can do this big-picture work, and unfortunately there are families that are going to get lost in it," she said. "I don't want to wait one more day for kids and families who have been waiting for a long time for their worlds to change in a positive way."

As chair of Cincinnati City Council's Human Services, Youth and Arts Committee, Simpson has been working with the Youth Commission of Cincinnati on a Youth Gap Analysis Study over the past several years. The study aims to understand youth from their perspective, and the team behind it has surveyed more than 1,600 youth and nearly 400 parents.

She supports the idea of "momtourages" that came out of that work. A momtourage is a group of neighborhood mothers who collaborate to help each other and keep their children safe and supported.

If elected, Simpson said she would work with partners in her first 100 days as mayor to develop strategies for reaching the most extremely impoverished children -- those living with grandparents or single moms who aren't working, along with young people who are unemployed and unprepared for work and those who are homeless.

"Sometimes you don't win the parent lottery," she said. "I didn't win that lottery."

But that doesn't mean Cincinnati's children living in poverty can't be winners.

"Our kids have a will," she said. "So don't think for one second that our kids are lazy and they don't want to do better. I work with them every day. They want to do better. We have to give them what they need."

Education, housing and transit

Richardson's approach to reducing childhood poverty would focus on city policies and leadership in three key areas, he said:

• Education

• Affordable housing

• And transportation.

As a University of Cincinnati trustee, Richardson helped start UC Scholars Academy, a program that immerses students at Hughes STEM High School in science, technology, engineering and math to help prepare them for college.

Richardson points to that program as a practical, meaningful way to help kids living in poverty and said that, as mayor, he would advocate for programs like it.

"Our city leaders, they start a task force, they start a commission, they talk about it and then go away," he said.

Richardson said he also would advocate for programs that give employers incentives to hire more Cincinnati youth for cooperative education experiences, and he's particularly interested in grooming more young people for technology jobs. The fact that Cincinnati's mayor doesn't have authority over the school district or university system isn't a barrier, he said.

"A great leader is able to inspire, motivate and bring people together," he said.

When it comes to affordable housing, Richardson said that as mayor he would push for "inclusionary zoning." Such policies typically require developers to include a certain percentage of affordable housing in any residential projects they build. He said his plan probably would favor 20 percent.

That means a developer who wants to build an apartment complex with 100 units would have to make at least 20 of them affordable for low- or moderate-income residents.

"Right now, when you have an affordable housing unit, you're separate," he said. "And then we create new pockets of poverty."

Rob Richardson

The third important element of Richardson's approach centers on improving public transportation.

"We will look at transportation and really implement comprehensive transportation plans to connect the whole region," he said.

A 2015 study by the University of Cincinnati's Economics Center found that 75,000 local jobs could not be reached by public transit. That disconnect exacerbates the region's poverty problem when low-income people have no way to get to jobs, Richardson said.

Although expanding bus routes would be expensive, Richardson said he thinks it can be done.

"You have to have a comprehensive transportation plan to compete as a city," he said. "We're going to put a plan forward in front of the voters during my first term that will make 75,000 jobs more accessible."

Richardson said he doesn't have any problem with the Child Poverty Collaborative's work, and he is glad to see the business community engaged in the issue.

But city policies around education, housing and transportation could be implemented right away and make a difference for families more quickly, he said.

"You cannot force anything to happen," he said. "You have to make sure there's enough buy in and collective vision to move a vision forward."

'Getting down to brass tacks'

If Cranley gets reelected as mayor, he wants to continue and grow the poverty-reduction initiatives that he championed during his first term.

The first is his signature Hand Up Initiative. Funded through the federal Community Development Block Grant program, the initiative combines job readiness and job training programs to help people get jobs and work their way to self-sufficiency.

Cranley's original plan that he unveiled during his 2013 campaign was more ambitious than the plan City Council ultimately passed.

But he said he remains "very proud" that his administration got it funded.

"It didn't become fully effective until 2015, but it's made a real difference," he said. "It's not the only reason but part of the reason we've seen a 5 percent reduction in childhood poverty."

The program partners with a variety of local nonprofit organizations that operate job readiness and training programs and provides those programs with additional funding to serve more people.

Hand Up targets residents in 15 city neighborhoods who have adjusted incomes of 80 percent of the area median income or below. For a single mom with two kids, that would mean a household income of no more than $51,300.

Cranley also has been involved from the start in the work of the Child Poverty Collaborative. He announced the effort in a state of the city speech, in fact, and is one of the group's co-chairs.

The collaborative, which United Way of Greater Cincinnati manages, announced a handful of recommendations late last year. Cranley said he expects the group to be "operational" by Oct. 1.

John Cranley Photo by Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"That has taken a long time, no question," he said. "I think we're finally getting down to brass tacks."

Cranley said the goal would be to spend at least $6 million in new dollars on the group's recommendations. Some of the strategies will be longer term, he said, while others would help families with immediate needs, such as providing bus passes to help someone get to a new job.

The collaborative's goal is to help lift 10,000 children -- and 5,000 families -- out of poverty within five years. If that clock starts ticking Oct. 1, Cranley said a second term would help him see the program through that initial commitment.

"I'm an impatient person so I always want things to move faster," he said. "But a lot of times that's not realistic, especially when you have hundreds of people involved. Coming toward a consensus takes time. But if there was an easy solution, it would have been done already."

Cranley said he, too, is working on an inclusive zoning policy that would help spur the development of more affordable housing in the city.

And he has a plan to improve transportation by working with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority to get a half-cent sales tax on the Hamilton County ballot that would take effect after the expiration of the Cincinnati Museum Center tax for the restoration of Union Terminal.

"That, under current math, would produce about $75 million a year," he said.

That would be a substantial increase over the $50 million that the city contributes each year now, Cranley said, and would allow the transit authority to expand bus routes and frequency and keep fares down.

"That would help dramatically," he said.

The impact of federal funding cuts

Plans and visions aside, whoever wins the election could have a big problem funding local poverty reduction efforts if President Donald Trump's administration stops sending cities federal funds in the form of Community Development Block Grants.

RELATED: Cuts could cost Cincinnati millions

Richardson, however, doesn't sound worried about what happens in Washington, D.C.

"We're going to have to solve problems here locally," he said. "We're not poor. We just have poor leadership."

Richardson said that, if he's elected, he will institute "performance-based budgeting" like the University of Cincinnati uses, where every college must show that they are maximizing the return on their dollars.

Under that system, he said, departments at City Hall would have to justify their funding, which he believes could save money overall.

Cranley, on the other hand, called the idea of eliminating Community Development Block Grants "frightening."

"It's a huge threat," Cranley said. "Our Hand Up Initiative is funded by CBDG dollars. It would be wiped out."

Cranley said he's working with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and several other groups to lobby against the proposal.

"I'd like to believe Congress isn't going to phase out Community Development Block Grants," he said. "But the fact that it's even on the table is scary."

On that much, Cranley and Simpson see eye to eye.

"We're already in a dire situation so any dollars that are removed from the situation make it more difficult for us to do our job," Simpson said.

And all the candidates agree that, whoever wins, a big part of that job will be finding and supporting strategies to move thousands of Cincinnati kids out of poverty.

Cranley, Richardson and Simpson will compete in the May 2 primary election. Whichever two win the most votes will be on the ballot Nov. 7.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and 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 To read more stories by Lucy, go to To reach her, email Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.