While the unemployment rate continues to fall, the number of people in the region living in poverty remains steady, according to recent studies.
Ohio’s unemployment rate is 4.6 percent and Butler County’s is 3.9, but 19 percent of the children and 14 percent of all Butler County residents are living in poverty, according to the census data.
Almost 70,000 children in Ohio rose out of poverty from 2014 to 2016, but one in five children — and close to half of all African-American children — still lived in poverty in the state last year, according to census figures analyzed by the Children’s Defense Fund Ohio.
The organization said poverty is defined as an annual income less than $24,563 for a four-member family. Extreme poverty is half that level, with close to one in 10 of the state’s children living at less than that measure.
To address poverty in the area, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati/Middletown Area is gathering community leaders periodically to have conversations looking at potential solutions. Poverty Conversation Part II was held last week at Central Connections in Middletown.
Terry Sherrer, executive director of the Middletown Area United Way, said poverty is more complex than simply finding employment. For instance, he said, years ago his family was “making it” until his mother had a critical, costly illness. Soon the family was impoverished, he said.
“Some people have unfortunate instances,” Sherrer said.
In Butler County, Jobs and Family Services started an employment program last year and the early returns have been positive, said Bill Morrison, executive director.
He said some people living in poverty face “significant barriers” when trying to find employment. He mentioned substance abuse, mental illness and lack of transportation.
The JFS programs offer substance abuse and mental health counseling but also employment preparation programs to identify and help bring down barriers to employment, Morrison said. Two contracts were awarded to Supports to Encourage Low-Income Families (SELF) and JOBS NOW programs, which offer life lessons and help with interview skills, resume writing, job searching online and appropraite interview attire.
“We present them with opportunities,” he said.
Morrison said this is a “good time” for the employment assistance program because of the number of companies hiring, some at $15 to $20 an hour.
“This is the right opportunity at the right time,” said Morrison, adding the program would have been ineffective 10 years ago during the Recession.
Despite the success, Morrison said there is no way to get everyone out of poverty. Those who receive public assistance traditionally continue in poverty, he said.
“There always will be poor people,” he said.
Michael Johnson, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, said there are 100,000 families and 600,000 people in the 10-county region the United Way of Greater Cincinnati serves who are impoverished.
“Totally unacceptable,” he said during the Middletown meeting. “Far too many are struggling in this region.”
Some jobs, those paying minimum wage, don’t provide a “livable wage,” Johnson said.
He said communities should be proactive and invest in early childhood education and produce high school graduates who are ready to continue their education in college or enter the workforce. Johnson said he talked to executives at AK Steel in Middletown who said because of the shortage of skilled labor $60,000 to $70,000 jobs are going unfilled.
The Parent Resource Center in Middletown provides career assistance, said Karin Maney, executive director of the Community Building Institute. She said the Robert “Sonny” Hill Community Center offers employment assistance, helps residents navigate paperwork and hopes to host job fairs.
Another Butler County agency that offers assistance is SELF. It offers programs that help families get jobs, keep jobs and build assets such as education, home, and business, said Jeffrey Diver, executive director.
However, he said, many families are not in a stable enough environment to take advantage of those programs because they are too busy taking care of day-to-day crises.
He said SELF offers incentives for client program participation in hopes the “modest amount of a gift card” will help reduce the family stress and enable the person to be able to focus on longer term goals. In an ideal situation, families would be presented with program opportunities when they get emergency services, he said.
Diver said research has proven there are at least four distinct areas of research on poverty: individual behavior and choices; exploitation such as human trafficking, car title loans, payday lending; community conditions such as plant closings, underfunded schools, charity that leads to dependence; and political/economic structure such as healthcare costs, recessions, minimum wage, lack of wealth-creating mechanisms.
Focusing only on individual behavior misses the other areas that will “truly move families out of poverty,” Diver said.
He believes that moving a generational poverty family to self-sufficiency is a three- to five-year sustained effort; most programs support a client for one or two years.
“There are so many barriers for impoverished families; the day-to-day struggles create chaos and the ‘tyranny of the moment,’” he said. “Today, the family needs help with utilities, tomorrow it’s rent, then food, then the kids are ill.”
The Butler County Employment Preparation Services collaborative, of which SELF is a part, is an “important initiative” to remove as many barriers as possible for clients seeking employment, he said. Holistic case management and problem solving help families troubleshoot other life issues in order to move forward economically, Diver said.