Columbus Dispatch, June 1, 2008: More Ohioans have fallen into poverty

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Sunday, June 1, 2008 3:12 AM

By Catherine Candisky


Nearly one in three Ohioans lives in a household that doesn’t earn enough to pay for housing, food, health care and other necessities.

That adds up to 3.4 million people whose household income is no more than twice the poverty level. For a family of four, that’s $42,400, which many economic analysts say is the minimum for covering basic needs. Less than a decade ago, 1 in 4 Ohioans was in the same boat.

Meanwhile, wages sink and gasoline and grocery prices soar.

An upcoming study will provide the greatest detail yet on how much Ohio families need to be self-sufficient. It will show what they need to pay rent, child care, utilities and other expenses without relying on a food pantry, government-paid health insurance or other types of aid.

Preliminary findings of the University of Washington report indicate that a Franklin County family of four with two young children needs $50,332 a year to get by.

Ohio’s three largest metropolitan areas — Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati — are the costliest places to live. Topping the list is Medina County, just south of Cleveland, where a family of four requires $52,289 a year to meet basic needs, researchers determined.

That family in Meigs County, in the Appalachian region, needs the least, $32,255.

When the full report is issued in July, it will include county-by-county self-sufficiency standards for more than a dozen family types.

The Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies commissioned the study. Executive director Phil Cole hopes the information will help guide Gov. Ted Strickland and other state leaders crafting policies to aid struggling families.

“If you go by the federal poverty guidelines, by the time someone is caught by the safety net, it’s of little use,” he said. “You have to help people when they are on their way down, not when they’ve hit bottom.”

Under federal guidelines, a family of four earning $21,200 a year or less is living in poverty. Cole says the figure is so low that it’s meaningless, but political forces have kept the formula from being updated — aside from inflation adjustments — for 45 years.

Last week, Strickland acknowledged that the state needs to look beyond federal guidelines and established a task force to recommend ways to help Ohioans earning up to twice the poverty level.

“There won’t be an easy answer,” he told a poverty summit Wednesday in Columbus. “But it’s incumbent on me as governor and the legislature to take this issue very seriously. There is no justification for accepting (the situation) so many children find themselves in.”

The governor has been battling the Bush administration to increase eligibility in a state and federally funded health-insurance program for children. He has expanded government-paid preschool programs and launched a task force to combat Ohio’s home-foreclosure crisis.

A statewide coalition of anti-poverty advocates is pushing a 10-point agenda that includes creating an Ohio Earned Income Tax Credit; providing education, training and other work aid to low-income Ohioans; increasing home energy assistance; and increasing cash aid by $100 a month to children being raised by grandparents or other relatives.

“Our No. 1 job has to be to build economic stability and opportunity for the citizens of our state,” said Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio.

The loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs and growth of lower-paying service jobs is to blame for the economic hardship. While Ohio’s unemployment rate has hovered just above 5 percent over the past five years, poverty has continued to grow.

“With the elimination of high-paying, good-benefit jobs, we are really looking at downward mobility in Ohio,” Cole said. “You trade hours of your life and don’t get in return a value that sustains life. It’s immoral.”

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