CINCINNATI -- If you are concerned about Greater Cincinnati's shameful child poverty rate, brace yourself: It's worse than you thought.
That's because most of the talk about local children living in poverty is based on U.S. Census data that uses the federal poverty level as a cut-off point. And that cut-off is very low.
In 2015, for example, the federal poverty level for a family of three was an annual household income of just $20,090.
Instead of using such low numbers to define whether kids are living in poverty, we should be talking about the barriers that make it more difficult for thousands of local families to become self-sufficient.
That's one of the conclusions of a new study called "PULSE REPORT: Outlining the Disincentives and Opportunity Costs for Working Mothers" prepared by the University of Cincinnati's Economics Center. The Women's Fund of The Greater Cincinnati Foundation commissioned the report.
The report makes it clear that reaching self-sufficiency is a much higher bar.
A single mom with two kids isn't considered "poor" under the federal definition if she earns more than that paltry $20,090 per year. That same mom's household income must be $51,416 per year for her to be self-sufficient -- to be able to pay for rent, food, childcare, transportation and all the other expenses families have, according to the new study.
So while nearly half of all children in the city of Cincinnati -- 47.2 percent, or more than 30,000 kids -- live below the federal poverty threshold, many, many more live in households with incomes far below that self-sufficiency standard, said Meghan Cummings, executive director of The Women's Fund of The Greater Cincinnati Foundation.
And many of those kids' parents are struggling to become self-sufficient because of the way government assistance programs are structured. The problem is especially difficult for single moms because women tend to be clustered in low-wage jobs.
"What we have right now is not working. It takes a lot of coordination and political will and courage to figure out a better path and get people on board with that," Cummings said. "Are we OK with these results? I don't think so. I think we deserve better than this. And I think this is the perfect moment to try to change some things."
Understanding the 'cliff effect'
Cummings, along with Julie Heath and Christopher Nicak of the UC Economics Center, made the case for change Tuesday afternoon before a group of about 100 local leaders at the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency.
They talked with me in advance of their presentation about the Economics Center's study.
The report explains in detail all the barriers that keep impoverished single moms, in particular, from becoming self-sufficient and having the lives they want for themselves and their children.
You can download the report and the accompanying white paper at The Women's Fund's website.
The goal of the study was to get a better understanding of the so-called "cliff effect." That's what it's called when a working mom who gets government assistance to support her family faces a steep decrease in those government benefits in exchange for a small promotion or increase in her salary.
For many working moms, in other words, getting a raise or promotion costs them a lot more than they gain because of the benefits they lose.
"Women have been telling us that they are working harder and harder and don't feel like they're getting ahead," Cummings said. "And it's completely true."
The report gives an example of a single mom with one child who earns $9 an hour. With that salary -- an annual income of $18,720 -- she qualifies for government benefits that help her pay her bills, feed her child and support her family.
But if that same mom gets a raise to earn $11 per hour -- for an annual salary of $22,880 -- she would no longer qualify for a number of government benefits. Because of that, after her raise, her annual income would be nearly $3,500 below what it takes to be self-sufficient.
If the mom were to have a second child and get a job working 25 hours a week for $15 an hour, she would get benefits that would help her to be $1,810 below the self-sufficiency line.
But if she decides to go back to work full-time at that hourly rate -- earning $31,200 per year -- she would lose benefits and be even worse off, dropping to $9,759 below self-sufficiency.
If she could get a raise and earn $18 and hour -- earning $37,440 per year -- that would help a bit. But even then, she would still be $6,441 below the income it would take for her to be self-sufficient, the study found.
'A very fragile system'
The research found that a single mom with two kids must earn at least $40,000 a year to get by. That is by no means an easy thing to do. There aren't loads of $40,000-a-year jobs available in the region for women who have little education and have started out in low-wage jobs.
And even if a woman can get to the point where she earns $40,000 per year, her family's situation remains precarious.
"They are one health event, one expensive car repair away from dropping right back down where they were," Cummings said. "That was a huge takeaway. We have a very fragile system here."
The findings explain why many women opt to stay in low-wage jobs, working limited hours, and continue to get government assistance, said Heath, director of the Economics Center at UC.
"What would you do?" she said. "It's a very intellectual kind of argument. But it's also an empathetic argument as well."
The study also points out just how difficult it is to figure out government benefits, when eligibility starts and stops and how the assistance programs all interact with each other.
"I've been studying this for three months, day in and day out, and I still keep picking up little things that I don't think we can reasonably expect people to figure out," said Nicak, the Economics Center's associate director of research. "The point of social assistance isn't to create a game where only experts can see what they need to meet self-sufficiency."
The single moms caught in this economic quicksand often end up working part-time or seasonal jobs, with hours and salaries that can fluctuate dramatically. And that makes it all the tougher to balance what makes the most sense for their families.
"To ask people to leave a permanent benefits structure for the relative uncertainty of the labor market, that's a very big ask," Heath said.
I have talked to enough people about poverty to know that some people will interpret that to mean that single moms who get government assistance are lazy -- that they don't want to work hard or aren't smart enough to figure out how to get ahead.
But I think the truth is that women get stuck.
Most parents want what's best for their kids. And if you find out that taking a raise or a promotion is going to result in hurting your kids, possibly for years, before it ends up being good for them, the choice to stay in low-wage jobs and keep getting government assistance becomes much easier to make.
Why you should care
If you have gotten this far and think that none of this affects you, think again.
Even if you're not worried about the thousands of local kids living in poverty, then worry about your wallet.
The government assistance going to Tri-State families costs millions of tax dollars.
The fact that parents living in poverty aren't earning as much income as they could means they're not paying the taxes they could be paying either, Heath noted.
"We know that thriving communities benefit everyone," Cummings said. "We have this huge portion of our population that's in this very fragile state, and that affects the health of our whole community."
The new report includes a series of recommendations that Cummings, Heath and Nicak believe could help turn things around. Those recommendations include:
• Developing a common understanding of what self-sufficiency is and how the region can move more people toward it.
• Creating a centralized way for people responsible for government assistance to figure out which families are getting which benefits and how those programs interact with each other.
• Growing more good jobs that provide "pathways to the middle class."
• Discussing honestly the roles that race and gender play in these problems and solutions.
"If we say it's a difficult journey for women," Cummings said, "it's a doubly difficult journey for women of color."
As big as the job is to help people lift themselves out of poverty and become self-sufficient, Cummings said the community's interest in the issue makes her optimistic that now is the time to try.
After all, more than 600 people spent half of a summer Saturday to tackle the topic with the Child Poverty Collaborative.
"If not now, when?" she said. "I think this is the perfect moment to try to change some things."
For the sake of the tens of thousands of kids and families in our region who are stuck in the tight grip of poverty, I hope she's right.
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, to go www.wcpo.com/poverty.