When poverty and pandemic collide, back to school strains families already struggling

'It put us in a crisis'
Posted: 5:00 AM, Aug 24, 2020
Updated: 2020-08-25 09:23:21-04

CINCINNATI — Marie Dawson felt like things were finally going her way at the start of 2020.

A long-time resident of the Villages at Roll Hill, Dawson had gone back to work as a supervisor at a cleaning company after giving birth to twin girls, and her older daughter and son were doing well in school.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“My job, it cut our hours where it put us in a crisis,” Dawson said. “I was just getting on my feet, and it seemed like – boom – now I’m back down to zero again and having to start all the way over, you know. It makes you have anxiety.”

Dawson spent hundreds of dollars on the technology her older children needed for virtual learning, money she had planned to spend on other bills.

“I just wanted my kids to pass because we were just on a good road,” she said. “It was like, we need computers. We need internet. We need all these things that, it was like, OK, at first I didn’t have. I had to go buy them so I could feel like they gonna succeed.”

Dawson’s federal stimulus check helped for a while. But she didn’t qualify for unemployment or the additional money that jobless people got in recent months. By last week, she was behind on rent and utilities -- and worried that the COVID-19 economic crisis had knocked down everything she worked so hard to build.

She’s far from alone.

A WCPO 9 analysis of census data found the poverty rate decreased in the census tract that covers the Villages at Roll Hill – as it did throughout most of the Tri-State – between 2013 and 2018, the most recent data available.

That’s the good news.

But concentrated poverty persists across the region. And even before the pandemic, nearly 75% of residents in the Villages at Roll Hill tract lived below the federal poverty threshold. That amounted to an annual income of $25,554 or less for a family of four in 2018, according to the figures the U.S. Census Bureau uses to determine poverty.

As parents like Dawson brace for the virtual learning that is such a big part of returning to school this year, advocates like Lisa Hyde-Miller wonder how far families can bend before they break.

“They already needed help prior to the virus. Now they’re losing their jobs, getting their hours cut. They need more help,” said Hyde-Miller, the long-time service coordinator for Wallick-Hendy Properties at the Villages at Roll Hill. “The struggle is city wide, statewide, worldwide right now.”

‘It was heartbreaking’

Government agencies and nonprofits in Greater Cincinnati are straining to respond.

WCPO surveyed local organizations that serve people struggling with financial stability to gauge how need has surged since the start of the pandemic. Consider:

· From January through August in 2019, Covington-based Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission helped 1,585 families in Northern Kentucky pay their gas and electric bills. For that same time frame this year, a whopping 8,998 families received help.

· Brighton Center in Newport had an increase in its home deliveries of food and basic necessities to senior citizens and homebound families from a monthly average of 16 to 130.

· St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati has had a 105% increase in rental assistance given to Hamilton County residents it serves using increased city, county and federal funds to prevent evictions during the pandemic.

· Similarly, the Community Action Agency – Cincinnati | Hamilton County helped 71 families with rental assistance between March and August of 2019 as compared to 176 families between March and August of this year.

· And Hamilton County Job & Family Services saw applications for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, increase from 2,277 in February to 4,207 in March. The number of applications doubled again, with a total of 9,828 in April followed by another 6,041 in May.

“In July we were hopeful it was going to sort of get to the point where people were going to be able to get back to work,” said Catrena Bowman-Thomas, Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission’s executive director. “And for a while they did. But now we’re seeing people again being cut back on their hours.”

Catrena Bowman-Thomas

The economic crisis happened just as more Tri-State families were beginning to pull themselves out of poverty.

WCPO analyzed census-tract-level data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey’s five-year average tables from 2009-2013 and 2014-2018 to compare poverty rates in neighborhoods within 14 counties in southeast Indiana, southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky.

On average, poverty rates within neighborhoods dropped by about 1.2 percentage points between 2013 and 2018.

But concentrated poverty within each county persisted -- even in 2018 -- and varied widely in urban and rural parts of the Tri-State.

In census tracts where poverty rates were highest – at 20% or higher – the average unemployment rate was 11.5%.

And, on average, about 25% of the people working in high-poverty areas held service-sector jobs, which have been among the hardest hit during the COVID-19 crisis.

“We just have a lot of families who are not in a position to forego employment,” said Mary Asbury, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati. “They don’t have remote jobs. If you are a home health aide or you work in a grocery store or something, you have to show up for work.”

And that’s for parents who still have jobs.

‘What do we do?’

“So many of the families, single mothers mostly, who had worked really hard to get ahead, they lost their jobs, and they lost their jobs very quickly. And they lost their child care very quickly,” said Jenny Wiley, the Family Center director at Brighton Center. “It was heartbreaking.”

There is still help available for families.

Hamilton County Job & Family Services, for example, can provide families up to $3,000 in money known as Prevention Retention Contingency, or PRC, funds as long as their household incomes are less than 200% of poverty and they have at least one child at home, said Kevin Holt, the agency’s interim assistant director of client services.

That equates to an annual household income of $43,000 a year for a family of three. The PRC funding is available to families once a year.

“It’s a great resource for all of our families and is one of the best kept secrets in the county,” Holt said.

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

Hyde-Miller uses those PRC funds to help families that get behind on their rent or utility bills or need money for car repairs or uniforms.

If families have already exhausted the PRC funds available to them, Hyde-Miller uses private dollars provided through Project Lift, a program of the Child Poverty Collaborative.

But Hyde-Miller is worried. She only has $5,000 left out of the $20,000 in Project Lift funds that she received in February.

“If someone applied for PRC already, and there’s no funds for Project Lift, then what do we do?” Hyde-Miller said. “We’re just asking for all the help that we can get.”

Sister Sally Duffy, who chairs the Child Poverty Collaborative, said it has been challenging to raise money for Project Lift during the pandemic.

“I am concerned,” Duffy said, adding that she’s hopeful the local, state and federal government will provide more financial assistance and protections for distressed families.

“A year from now, it’s going to be so much more difficult if you’re a family that’s homeless than if a year from now, you at least still have some stable housing and utilities,” she said.

Sister Sally Duffy at United Way of Greater Cincinnati on March 18, 2020.

The key long-term will be changing the policies and practices that keep families from becoming self-sufficient, said Moira Weir, the CEO of United Way of Greater Cincinnati.

“How do we collectively come together and challenge the systemic barriers that are keeping people in poverty?” Weir said.

As the push continues for systemic changes, though, there are immediate needs to meet.

‘They’re not being lazy’

At the Villages at Roll Hill, for example, families routinely get free food for their children through the nonprofit Childhood Food Solutions, UMC Food Ministry and La Soupe.

Madison Mattingly and his 6-year-old son, Kyrie, visited the community center last week to do just that.

Mattingly and his wife live at the Villages of Roll Hill with their three kids. Both have essential jobs; he works in construction, and she cleans. He said they have had no choice but to go to work, although he went without work for a short time earlier in the pandemic.

Madison Mattingly with his son, Kyrie.

They’re counting on their older daughter to watch the younger kids during virtual learning this school year when they’re at work, he said. But as of last week, the family was on a waiting list for internet service.

“Cincinnati Bell is kind of booked up at the moment. That’s kind of a bummer,” he said. “Hey, you cannot fail my child if my child doesn’t have Wi-Fi yet. So there is no stress on my part. My child better get the education they actually need.”

Roll Hill SchoolPrincipal Vicki Hill said she and her team – and educators throughout Cincinnati Public Schools – are working hard to ensure that happens.

The school district is especially sensitive to the needs of lower-income families, she said, which is why CPS is making sure all students get their own devices for learning from home. CPS also is making sure each student receives five days worth of meals from school, even when they aren’t learning in person, she said.

“We’re ready to make sure that each and every child will be on track,” she said. “It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be good.”

Marie Dawson said she’s good thanks to Hyde-Miller, now that her rent and utility bills are paid up.

Dawson is planning to move to Bond Hill where her older children can attend a different school in person five days a week.

“It’s gonna get better. We just gotta let this bypass,” Dawson said. “We just gotta keep going, you know? That’s all we can do. And pray. That’s it.”

Hyde-Miller said she sees parents like Dawson and Mattingly working hard every day to get ahead. And since the coronavirus pandemic started, she said, she’s had plenty of them crying in her office over just how much the crisis has set them back.

“They’re trying to help themselves. They’re not being lazy,” Hyde-Miller said. “I’ve been here a long time – in this neighborhood for 26 years – and I’m seeing real pain and really hurt that’s going on because they’re trying to make it, but they’ve struggled. The coronavirus has put the ice on top of the struggle.”

Lisa Hyde-Miller helps distribute food to parents at the Villages at Roll Hill on Aug. 18, 2020.

If you live in Greater Cincinnati and need help, United Way of Greater Cincinnati can help connect you to services. Dial 211 or 513-721-7900. TTY: 513-762-7250. Or email The service covers Hamilton, Clermont and Brown counties in Ohio and Boone, Campbell, Kenton and Grant counties in Kentucky.

WCPO 9 Multimedia Producer Brian Niesz contributed to this story.

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 Lucy and WCPO 9, online and on air. To reach Lucy, email Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.