CINCINNATI — Entire books have been written about how poverty has ravaged black families and communities.
During The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus 2016 Statewide Convention this weekend, a group of experts will spend an hour trying to shed light on the complex issue.
A panel called "How to Break the Cycle of Poverty in the Black Community" will take place from 1:45 to 2:45 p.m. Saturday at The Westin Cincinnati downtown.
"I'm hoping this group talks about how did we get here, what does it really look like and are these discussions (locally and across the country) worthwhile," said Gwen Robinson-Benning, the CEO of the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency and the moderator for Saturday's panel.
Robinson-Benning's organization is on the front lines of fighting poverty. The agency operates Head Start and Early Head Start preschool classes for low-income children in addition to programs for needy young people and adults that help with job training, utility bill assistance and housing support, among other services.
So Robinson-Benning knows the struggles that families face, even when their incomes aren't technically at or below the federal poverty level.
"If I have to turn away 100 families from Head Start because they are $50 or $100 over the income threshold, something is wrong with our system," she said.
State Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati, said she hopes that is one of the topics Saturday's panelists can address: The large numbers of black parents who aren't "poor" by federal standards but who are struggling despite the fact that they work one or more jobs.
"We've got so many African-Americans who have slipped from the middle class," said Reece, who is president of The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. "We’ve got programs if you don't have anything. But we don't have a program if you're working at Burger King or White Castle."
Panelists for Saturday's discussion are: Robert "Bo" Chilton, CEO of Impact Community Action in Columbus; State Rep. Stephanie Howse, D-Cleveland; Chara Fisher Jackson, executive director of Greater Cincinnati Urban League; Dr. O'dell Owens, interim health commissioner for the Cincinnati Health Department; Pastor Ennis Tait, overseer of Church of the Living God; and Bernadette Watson, a consultant with the Child Poverty Collaborative here.
The panel is open to anyone registered for the convention. Registration is free.
To get a better understanding of the topics the panelists want to discuss, WCPO interviewed several of them.
The Pastor's Perspective
Robinson-Benning stressed that the panelists were selected for the different perspectives each one brings.
For Tait, talking about poverty is personal.
Although Tait has a college degree in finance and spent more than a decade working in the corporate world, his decision to focus on his ministry has left his family struggling financially at times, he said.
"I have four children. Literally I work two jobs, and I spend most of my time helping other people to survive when I'm trying to survive myself," he said. "If you look at stages of poverty, I'm really in poverty because I have to struggle to do it. That's why it's personal for me and really important."
Tait said he hopes the panel can continue to shed light on the realities of poverty. And he wants to underscore the role the faith community can play in addressing the problem.
While churches can't be the places where families get the primary assistance they need, congregations could help fill the gaps that government assistance and other programs leave behind, he said.
"Our resources have to be set up where people can come to complement and assist where others are trying to work," he said.
Howse approaches the issue from a legislative perspective — looking for policies and laws that could be changed to help Ohio's thousands of families in need.
"Poverty doesn't have a district," she said. "There's urban poverty. There's suburban poverty. There's rural poverty. We know it's impacting all Ohioans no matter where you live. So having a real conversation on how we can break the cycle is really important."
Howse said lawmakers are challenged to "legislate with flexibility."
"There's not a one size that fits all that will combat poverty," she said. "Especially as you look geographically. Poverty looks different."
Howse also would like to see state government invest more in early childhood education and to approve a "living wage."
"Especially within our community, when you look at people who are working within health care, child care. People who are working full time, but they are still living in poverty," she said. "There is something wrong with that. The work they're doing is useful, beneficial work, but we're paying people pennies."
But the biggest message for Howse, she said, is that poverty isn't just a problem for people living in poverty.
"Poverty is everyone's issue, and in order to effectively fight poverty and combat poverty, we are all going to have to work towards that," she said. "Every day, we are dealing with poverty whether we are addressing it or not."
The Doctor's Prescription
As far as Owens is concerned, the community and the state are running out of time to address the problem.
"We've got to be serious about it," he said. "Right now, we have one chance to change this. One opportunity. If it doesn't work, it will be very difficult to galvanize people."
Owens is one of six co-chairs of the Child Poverty Collaborative, which formed last year to reduce childhood poverty in Hamilton County. 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.
To tackle the challenge locally, Owens said it would take the whole community, including educators, hospital systems, social workers and businesses of all kinds.
"This has to be a holistic approach where we look at every piece of the puzzle that lends itself to people remaining in poverty," he said.
But it doesn't necessarily mean that the region or state should throw more money at the problem, he said.
"It may mean that we need to spend our dollars in a better way," he said. "People have the misbelief that you can buy your way out of poverty. No."
The community must be willing to ask hard questions and have difficult conversations — especially when it comes to the issue of race, Owens said.
"Let's put it on the table. Let's figure out where it's there, and let's get past that," he said. "That's going to be a tough conversation."
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.