Poverty’s spread to suburbs strains social service agencies

An increase in the number of people living in poverty in the past decade has put a strain on the resources of local social service agencies.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13.5 percent of Butler County residents were living in poverty in 2010, up from 8.7 percent in 1999. That’s 48,197 people living below the Federal Poverty Guideline, which for a family of four with two children, is $22,800 annually, or $18,123 for a single-parent family with two children.

The number of people in poverty in the city of Hamilton has jumped from 13.4 percent in 1999 to 20.9 percent in 2011, and in Middletown from 12.6 percent to 23.2 percent, according to a report issued earlier this year by the Ohio Department of Development using Census Bureau statistics.

These trends have put St. Raphael Social Service in Hamilton in such a strain that it has had to cut back on its ability to help people in need, according to Terry Perdue, executive director of the agency.

“We’re seeing more frequent visitors from larger households,” Perdue said of the agency that serves all of Butler County. “My theory is that since the economy has worsened, families are combining and a lot more people are living in one household.”

The agency’s food bank serviced 935 households in 2008 and 1,930 in 2012, with a peak of 2,132 households in 2011.

To keep pace with the dramatic increase in demand in 2011, the agency was forced to reduce its food bank hours from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. five days a week to three hours a day, three days a week.

“We restricted the number of families we can serve to 40 a day,” Perdue said. “In November and December last year, we had to close entirely in order to re-stock. We’ve been holding food drives and are getting food from Shared Harvest, but we just can’t keep it on the shelves.

“We have too many people to manage,” he said.

At the same time, Purdue said there has been a noticeable drop in financial donations and an increase in material donations.

“I don’t think it’s a loss of faith in us,” he said, “but that they want to make a tangible difference in something they can be a part of.”

Supports to Encourage Low-Income Families has also seen a marked increase in the number of individuals served, from about 11,000 in 2001 to 18,251 in 2010, according to Beth Race, community relations director.

In the same time period, its revenues — mostly from federal sources — has remained relatively steady, from $2.2 million to $2.3 million, but that’s without adjusting for inflation.

And that’s not counting the more recent hits the agency has taken because of the federal sequester.

“It’s a tight budget, but we’ve been OK,” Race said. “But we can’t make up for the cuts with donations.”

Even though the economy is making a slow recovery, Race said the trend shows an increasing number of “working poor.”

“We see people who aren’t earning a living wage or getting benefits,” she said.

Poverty’s geography expands

Poverty persists and increases because the infrastructure of poverty services has changed, said Tina Osso, executive director of the Shared Harvest Food Bank.

“In the past, people who lived in poverty were concentrated in primarily urban areas. We knew where poor people generally lived. So over the years, we built a support infrastructure around that geography,” she said.

Many people point to the 2008 collapse of the economy as when poverty began to spread, but Osso said it goes back to the “Internet bubble” bursting around the turn of the century.

“People who normally were able to support themselves without any assistance did not live in urban areas. They began finding themselves in need of services because their income dropped,” Osso said.

So by the time the recession hit, “we were already seeing people who had been middle class unable to support themselves and generally living in suburban areas … the recession exacerbated the problem,” she said.

“We’ve heard the term ‘the disappearance of the middle class’ — all you have to do is go stand in our food pantry line, and you’ll see it,” Osso said.

Not only is poverty on the rise in cities like Middletown and Hamilton, but it’s made inroads into areas that are considered affluent, such as Mason.

Mason’s poverty rate is much smaller than Warren County’s larger cities, at 4.6 percent, according to the census statistics. But that’s almost double the 2.8 percent it was in 1999, according to the same study. Many people are surprised to learn that Mason has a food pantry at all, said its director, Gina Davis.

“From 2011 to 2012, I think we had a 38 percent increase. And I think part of that is because of getting awareness out. If I only had a quarter for every time someone said, ‘There’s a pantry in Mason?’” she said.

Davis said many of her clients tend to be families with at least one person who has lost their job, so they struggle to make ends meet.

“We certainly have a lot more middle class people that are shopping at our pantry, who might have been financially responsible, but if you haven’t had a job in three years, there’s only so many cheap jobs. A lot of families have really had to take a step back because maybe the spouse has been unemployed for two or three years and they’ve burned through their savings,” she said.

Davis estimated that in 2008, the pantry served 200 people a month. That amount doubled to 400 people a month in 2009, she said. Last year, it served 670 people a month.

“There’s always been people that have needed the pantry, but everyone was so shocked to find Mason had one. Everyone thinks Homearama, but everyone doesn’t live in a million-dollar house in Mason,” she said.

St. Raphael also reports that the number of food pantry clients it has from West Chester Twp., Liberty Twp. and Fairfield ZIP codes has grown from 225 in 2008 to 787 in 2012.

Housing crisis drives up rent

The delivery of social services is also changing to fit these growing demographics. One example is school-based services like the Backpack Program, which works with the Butler County Success Program to reach children through local school districts.

“The great thing about the Butler County Success program is that the the liaisons work with the families, not just the students. So the intervention that occurs there happens in their homes rather than in a social services setting, and that’s really the trend,” Osso said.

Many times, getting basic needs is a struggle. Renters in Ohio need to earn $13.79 per hour, nearly double the current minimum wage, in order to afford a basic apartment, according to a report released earlier this year by the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.

“The gap between what the minimum wage renter in Ohio is paid in wages and what they’re expected to pay in rent is widening significantly,” said Bill Faith, executive director of COHHIO. “The home ownership crisis drove rental prices up and out of reach for many of our most vulnerable populations. Those who have always relied on rental housing are getting squeezed out of this post-recession housing market.”

Working at the minimum wage in Ohio, a family must have 1.8 minimum wage earners working full-time, or one full-time earner working 70 hours per week to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment. An estimated 54 percent of renters in Ohio do not earn enough to afford a two-bedroom unit.

“With many more families renting rather than buying a home, and many experiencing unemployment or underemployment, being able to afford a modest two-bedroom rental is a very real question for a lot of people right now,” Faith said. “Some tough budgeting decisions are having to be made at kitchen tables across Ohio.”

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