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Tri-State's child poverty rates improved in 2019, but will COVID-19 crisis erase gains?

'This is hitting everyone'
COLUMN: Here's why One to One poverty-fighting effort can't come soon enough
Posted at 12:01 AM, Dec 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-10 17:30:52-05

CINCINNATI — Poverty eased its grip on Greater Cincinnati’s children in 2019, according to new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The latest American Community Survey found that 16.8% of children across the Tri-State – nearly 86,000 kids -- lived below the federal poverty level last year.

In the city of Cincinnati, 39% of children – or more than 25,000 -- lived below the federal poverty level, according to the data. Hamilton County’s child poverty rate was 23.4%, encompassing 43,200 kids below the age of 18.

All those child poverty rates are lower than they were in 2014, giving advocates hope that a strong economy and a focus on reducing poverty can make a difference.

“Our community being intentional about reducing poverty is showing results,” Sister Sally Duffy said in an email to WCPO 9. Duffy is chair of the Child Poverty Collaborative formed in 2015 to reduce child poverty in the region.

But the new estimates are based on 2019 data and do not reflect the COVID-19 economic crisis or the thousands of families struggling in its wake.

“The need is just amazing,” said Alida Hart, president and CEO of IPM Food Pantry, also known as Inter Parish Ministry. “We’ve seen a three-fold increase in the number of clients we serve. And it’s not going away anytime soon, either.”

IPM Food Pantry has provided nearly 18,600 families with food since the start of the pandemic in mid-March, Hart said. That’s nearly double the 9,600 families the food pantry served in all of 2019, she said, and it doesn’t include the first quarter or the last month of this year.

Alida Hart at IPM Newtown pantry
Alida Hart is president and CEO of Inter Parish Ministry.

“In the last three months, 34% of our clients are new to IPM,” she said. “This is hitting everyone.”

A family of four is considered poor under federal guidelines if their household income is $26,200 per year or less.

Many families locally have seen their incomes shrink as the result of furloughs, job loss or reduced hours, said Pastor Ennis Tait of New Beginnings Church of the Living God in Avondale.

“The government can’t respond fast enough,” Tait said. “There’s still not enough happening fast enough to keep people off of the poverty line.”

Local houses of worship have mobilized to help their communities as quickly and directly as possible, he added, but they could use help.

“I find hope in that God will touch the hearts of people who have the resources and trust that they will use those resources, or at least leverage them, by putting those resources in the hands of nontraditional, community-based organizations,” Tait said. “It’s going to take individuals, and we can’t be afraid or overwhelmed because the situation looks like it can’t be resolved – because it can.”

Hugs, tears and tightly held hands at Fountain Square vigil
Bishop Ennis F. Tait pictured during a vigil for victims of the September 2018 shooting at Fifth Third Center Downtown.

Duffy said the 2019 poverty rates show that a strong economy can help reduce poverty but stressed that new and existing jobs must pay better wages.

“A rising tide does not lift all boats,” she said in the email. “One of the things the poverty collaborative focuses on is jobs paying a livable wage.”

Systemic racism and inequities also prevent many families from lifting themselves out of poverty without some help, Duffy said. The Child Poverty Collaborative’s Project Lift initiative aims to help families overcome those barriers, she said, by connecting families to organizations that can provide the help they want and by providing money to solve short-term problems.

The region’s child poverty rate will almost certainly rise when this year’s economic crisis gets factored in, United Way of Greater Cincinnati spokesman Brian Gregg said in an email.

“We know one in five families were living in poverty before this, and we expect that number to be higher because of COVID,” Gregg said. “But even middle-income families faced loss of income overnight. Some industries, such as the restaurant industry and travel industry, were decimated. Many families find themselves in situations from which it will take years to recover.”

Tony Fairhead, the executive director of Childhood Food Solutions, said he worries that Black families will face the most difficult recovery.

After the Great Recession, the rate of food insecurity across the United States was more than twice as high for Black families as for white families, Fairhead said, and recovery took years.

His nonprofit helps provide food to low-income families in the Villages at Roll Hill and surrounding neighborhoods. It was designed to fill the gaps when children don’t get meals at school because of data that show education results are lower for children who struggle with hunger.

“We’ve discovered more need this year than before,” Fairhead said.

Churches, corporations and government agencies have rallied to help families in the Villages of Roll Hill, Fairhead said. That’s because they know that Lisa Hyde-Miller, the long-time service coordinator for Wallick-Hendy Properties there, will get the food into the hands of families who need it, he said.

Lisa_Hyde_Miller.JPG
Lisa Hyde-Miller in her office at the Villages at Roll Hill

But Fairhead and Hyde-Miller, who is also the chair of Childhood Food Solutions’ board, worry about low-income families in other parts of the region that their organization doesn’t have enough funding to reach.

That’s why Fairhead and Hyde-Miller hope to ask a question of Tri-State business leaders during a Fifth Third Bank Diversity Leadership Symposium to be held Thursday morning.

Fairhead shared their question with WCPO 9:

“Inclusion is only possible to the extent that it is working for the education of elementary-age children. Based on data from the 2007-09 recession, for a period of five years, Black households experienced 2.3 times the food insecurity experienced by white households. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a survey in which one in five American children had ‘insufficient food’ during the previous week. In time, we will learn that hunger is again occurring inequitably. What can our region do to assure children of all races receive sufficient food?”

Struggling families in need of assistance can turn to their local house of worship or call United Way’s 211 help line for a referral to a community agency. Tait suggested that people who have the means to help could fund efforts at churches, synagogues, mosques and other grassroots faith organizations. Donations to United Way can be made online.

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. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.