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Child poverty rates in Cincinnati, Hamilton County still higher than the U.S. as a whole

'It's almost one step forward, and two steps back'
Posted: 12:01 AM, Dec 19, 2019
Updated: 2019-12-19 00:01:45-05
Could reducing child poverty be this easy?

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati and Hamilton County still have much higher rates of child poverty than the U.S. as a whole, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The latest American Community Survey estimates more than 40% of children in the city of Cincinnati — more than 26,000 kids — live below the federal poverty level.

Hamilton County’s child poverty rate is nearly 24%, encompassing 44,000 kids below the age of 18. The Tri-State as a whole has a child poverty rate of nearly 18%, according to the data, representing more than 89,000 kids.

A family of four is considered poor under federal guidelines if their household income is $25,750 per year or less.

As staggering as those numbers are, they appear to represent a decline from the region’s child poverty rates five years ago.

Census Bureau officials caution against comparing the data directly because the government’s method for calculating the poverty rate recently changed.

But under the old method of calculating poverty rates, an estimated 45% of Cincinnati children lived in poverty five years ago. The Tri-State as a whole had a child poverty rate of 19.6%, according to American Community Survey estimates released in December 2014.

Living in poverty can have long-term impacts on the health of children, said Dr. Robert Kahn, the lead for community health at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Poverty often influences educational attainment, he said, which is directly connected to adult life expectancy and health. Being poor also tends to mean living in lower-quality housing, which can increase the incidence of asthma and other health problems, he said.

"Poverty is absolutely bad for child health. We still see tremendous amounts of poor health due to factors like hunger, eviction and exposure to violence," Kahn said. "If there is a dip in the poverty levels, that can only be good for kids, but our current poverty rate, regardless, is still too high."

Even as the federal poverty estimates creep slightly lower, people on the front lines of helping Greater Cincinnati’s low-income families say there is no shortage of need in the region.

The Freestore Foodbank's research shows that fewer people across its service area are lacking reliable access to affordable, nutritious food, which is an improvement.

The organization estimates the region it serves has 270,000 people who are “food insecure,” said CEO Kurt Reiber. That’s down from 285,000 people four years ago, he said.

But those who are worried about feeding themselves and their children are struggling more than ever, Reiber said.

That’s evidenced by the fact that Freestore Foodbank distributed 33.8 million meals during its fiscal year that ended June 30, 2019, he said, a 24% increase over meals distributed the previous year.

“I think we’re making some progress, but it’s almost one step forward and two steps back,” Reiber said. “The folks that can get jobs and can get employment are doing that and I think are working as hard as they can, but when an economic shock hits, they don’t have the staying power. They don’t have the economic capital to make ends meet.”

A Freestore Foodbank van.
A Freestore Foodbank van

Bethany House Services hasn’t seen a decrease in the need for its services either, said executive director Susan Schiller.

In the six years since Schiller started leading Bethany House, the organization has expanded its capacity to help families experiencing homelessness, going from 30 beds in 2014 to 170 beds — plus cribs — currently.

“Our numbers have definitely gone up,” Schiller said. “It’s just unbelievable the number of people that need assistance, the number of kids, and that’s the sad part.”

With all the news about the improving economy and lower unemployment across the U.S., it’s difficult for people to understand how many families continue to struggle, she said.

“When you’re making eight, nine dollars an hour, you’re not feeling that there’s a great economy at all,” she said. “It’s good for the people at the top end, but not for the people at the bottom.”

Reiber agreed.

“Where we’re really seeing the challenge right now is because of the gig economy, because folks are working multiple part-time jobs and they don’t have benefits, they’re spending a lot of money they earn on securing those benefits or a child getting sick,” he said. “What they’re really doing is living paycheck-to-paycheck.”

And whether the overall number is lower or not, there still are thousands of families across the region who haven’t been able to work their way out of poverty.

"Four in 10 children living in poverty should be alarming to all of us, whether we're parents, pediatricians, educators or the business community," Kahn said. "Forty percent is 40% too many."

“That’s where you look at the numbers, and you say to yourself, ‘Do the numbers really tell the whole story?’” Reiber added. “And in this case, they really don’t.”

COLUMN: Could this one thing end homelessness?
This little girl stayed at Bethany House Service's Fairmount shelter with her mom and siblings in 2016.

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 reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.