CINCINNATI — Depending on which U.S. Census Bureau data you look at, childhood poverty has either gotten worse or a little bit better in the city of Cincinnati.
Either way, though, tens of thousands of children in Cincinnati and Hamilton County are living below the federal poverty line. And 2016 is the year the city's business, political, civic and faith leaders are determined to come together in an initiative known as the Child Poverty Collaborative to reduce those numbers.
"The goal is zero children in poverty," said Michael Fisher, CEO of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and one of six co-chairs of the collaborative.
The community has a long way to go to get there.
Figures released as part of the Census Bureau's American Community Survey in early December showed that nearly half of all children in the city of Cincinnati — a stunning 47.2 percent — live below the federal poverty threshold. 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 — live below the federal poverty level.
For a family of three with two children under the age of 18, the federal poverty threshold was a household income of $19,073 per year in 2014.
Helping those kids will require helping their parents or guardians, said Rob Reifsnyder, president of United Way of Greater Cincinnati.
"You can't get children out of poverty without helping their parents out of poverty, and you can't consider children and parents as two silos," Reifsnyder said.
Back in March, United Way unveiled a $100 million plan aimed at reducing poverty. Reifsnyder said the work of the collaborative is aimed at going beyond those efforts.
Listening to People in Poverty Is Key
Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley in October announced the creation of a child poverty task force to tackle the problem. The task force, which has since been renamed the Child Poverty Collaborative, is being managed by United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Cranley, Cincinnati Vice Mayor David Mann and Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune have pledged to work with the group.
In addition to Fisher, the collaborative's co-chairs include:
• Tom Williams, president of North American Properties and chairman of the influential Cincinnati Business Committee;
• Dr. O'dell Owens, former president of Cincinnati State who is now medical director of the Cincinnati Health Department;
• Donna Jones Baker, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio;
• Sister Sally Duffy, president of the SC Ministry Foundation;
• And Cranley.
Longtime Kroger Co. executive and former Cincinnati Public Schools school board member Lynn Marmer will serve as executive director of the collaborative after she retires from Kroger at the end of January.
Reifsnyder said the group would start by focusing on child poverty in Hamilton County. In time, he said, the strategies it recommends could spread to other parts of the region.
The group's first order of business will be hiring a consulting firm to study the problem and to include a diverse group of people in the work, Marmer said, including people who live in poverty and those who have just recently worked their way out of poverty.
The collaborative'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.
The original plan was to release a series of recommendations by June. That might not be realistic at this point, but those leading the effort hope recommendations can be unveiled sometime this coming summer.
At the same time the collaborative begins its work, a new organization called GreenLight Cincinnati is working to figure out what kinds of tools the city needs to fight poverty that aren't here already, said Tara Noland, GreenLight Cincinnati's executive director.
After GreenLight Cincinnati identifies that need, it will search for an innovative nonprofit in another part of the country that it can bring here in early 2017. GreenLight will invest $600,000 in the new nonprofit over three to five years and help it get established.
"We're nimble," Noland said. "We identify a need, and within a year we are doing something to fill that need, which is a lot faster than a lot of people are able to work."
Noland said she expects GreenLight Cincinnati to work closely with the Child Poverty Collaborative as that group develops its recommendations, too.
Including poor people in the collaborative's work will be critical to its success, said Sherman Bradley, co-pastor of New Life Covenant Cincinnati and founder and CEO of a nonprofit called Consider the Poor.
"I hope that there's more than one or two token people in the community who are living in poverty who are part of this," said Bradley. He has not been approached to be part of the collaborative but said he wants to help. "So much of the system is set up on middle-class values and perspective based on achievement rather than us switching that around and learning more about how they're dealing in their day-to-day and their values."
It can be difficult for middle-class families to understand how poor families must think and act to survive day-to-day, Bradley said. And there has to be a process to help people who have lived in poverty for generations better understand the expectations of the middle class that are embedded in work and school, he said.
"You have to teach abstract thinking for people who have lived in the tyranny of the moment," Bradley said.
Leveraging 'the Power of God'
To really make a difference in childhood poverty, the collaborative also must win the support and assistance of local clergy and their congregations, said the Rev. Troy Jackson, director of the Amos Project, a group of congregations in Greater Cincinnati that is dedicated to improving the community.
"One of our best chances is to see faith leaders and congregations deeply involved in this work," Jackson said. "We believe that problems this wicked need the power of God in the mix."
The Amos Project in 2015 developed a platform to reduce childhood poverty that included four planks:
• Respecting every child
• Racial equity
• Only good jobs
• And family voices at the center
Several of those planks are aimed at tackling the racial disparities in the region, and Jackson said he hopes the collaborative will face those disparities head-on, too.
"We need to get real about race," he said. "We have a childhood poverty problem because we have unemployed, underemployed and unengaged families in the urban core who often while working full time are still on public assistance."
Reifsnyder said addressing racial disparities would be a critical part of the collaborative's work.
"Poverty doesn't know race in the sense that there's substantive African-American poverty in our community. There's substantive white poverty in our community. There's substantive Hispanic poverty in our community," he said. "But we know the disparities are great."
A report released in August by the Greater Cincinnati Urban League showed just how stark those disparities are. "The State of Black Cincinnati 2015: Two Cities" found that:
• Of the nearly 14,000 families living in poverty in the city of Cincinnati between 2005 and 2009, 76 percent were black.
• And an "unconscionable" 74 percent of the city of Cincinnati's black children under the age of 6 live in poverty.
"There is an understanding that we must tackle this multi-dimensional problem head-on — whatever it takes — in order to strengthen individuals and families and ultimately everyone in the region," the Urban League's Donna Jones Baker told WCPO.
As difficult and complex as that work will be, Baker said she's confident that 2016 will be the year that Cincinnati begins to turn the corner.
The key over the long haul will be following through on recommendations that have an impact and proceeding with a combination of "thoughtfulness and urgency," said Children's Hospital's Fisher.
"It's taken many years, if not generations, to create this growing problem and challenge of childhood poverty," Fisher said. "Part of what we need to make sure we do is stick with this over the long haul."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.