Mayor John Cranley’s State of the City speech earlier this week touched on a number of issues the mayor has deemed priorities in the coming year — among them, the city’s sky-high childhood poverty rate.
Last year, according the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, 44.3 percent of the city’s children lived in poverty. That’s down from over 50 percent in 2012, when Cincinnati ranked second-highest in the country, but still double the national average of about 22 percent and nearly double Ohio’s average of 23 percent.
Cranley says he wants to find ways to lift 10,000 of Cincinnati’s 30,000 poor kids out of poverty in the next five years. To do that, he’s proposing convening a task force that will present recommendations for reaching that goal. The task force will present those recommendations June 30, 2016 — the day before the city’s new fiscal year.
Is that goal realistic? And does Cranley’s proposal to create a task force that will research ways to address childhood poverty in Cincinnati go far enough? Some say no, citing other Cranley proposals, including a parks charter amendment that would spend millions in property tax revenues to create new recreational attractions, that will spend much more money on things critics say are less pressing or effective.
Meanwhile, others applaud the fact the mayor is focusing on the problem and say they are willing to give his ideas time to play out.
City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson is among the critics of Cranley’s approach.
In an Oct. 6 editorial for The Cincinnati Enquirer, Simpson said the mayor’s big speech left out some key considerations — from the University of Cincinnati police shooting death of Samuel DuBose and ongoing racial issues in the city to progress made on the city’s streetcar system.
One of the speech’s big shortfalls, Simpson says, is the lack of a serious plan to address poverty in the city.
“For those individuals living in poverty and organizations actively working on the root causes and effects of institutional, inter-generational poverty everyday, organizing a ‘summit’ and expecting it will lead to a one-third reduction in our childhood poverty rate in 5 years is, at best, out of touch and at worst, disrespectful,” Simpson wrote in the piece.
Simpson said Cranley’s statements are surprising considering the recent fight between the mayor’s office and City Council over human services funding in the city’s budget. Democrats on Council pushed for more money for programs traditionally funded through human services in the budget to get the city back on track toward devoting at least 1 percent of the budget toward such programs.
Council passed a resolution last fall asking the city to double funding for traditional human services programs. While making this year’s city budget, however, City Manager Harry Black ignored that resolution and put much of that money in new programs not usually associated with traditional human services. Meanwhile, federal money usually given to other programs was directed toward the mayor’s Hand Up Initiative, which looks to get more poor Cincinnatians into jobs making around $10 an hour through programs like Cincinnati Cooks! and Cincinnati Works. Those dynamics caused a big battle over the city budget.
Community activist Mike Moroski sits on the steering committee for Hand Up. He’s also the executive director of UpSpring, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing the city’s childhood poverty problem. Moroski says he’s not always been a Cranley fan, but his time working on Hand Up has convinced him the mayor is responsive to input and new ideas. He says he’s willing to give Cranley’s anti-poverty ideas time to bear fruit.
“I voted for [Cranley’s 2013 mayoral opponent] Roxanne Qualls,” Moroski says. “I didn't think John Cranley would be a very good mayor.”
Moroski says he still disagrees with Cranley on some issues, including the streetcar, but says those issues aren’t as important as addressing the city’s big poverty problem. He says he believes the mayor — and City Council — are serious about working toward solving that problem and that he hopes city officials can work past politics together toward that end.
“Will Mayor Cranley's new Task Force do just that? I have no idea, but I am willing to be hopeful and wait and see,” Moroski said in an email yesterday. “I am not willing to dismiss it right out of the gate. Did he spend enough time on it last evening? I don't know — I am not going to pass judgment because it wasn't talked about enough — I am just happy it was talked about.”
The city has made some efforts to address its deep economic divisions, including a recent raft of ordinances that would help address the racial and gender disparities in its contracting practices. However, Cincinnati is still a place of stunning inequalities when it comes to the economic conditions of its neighborhoods, and ways to address those inequalities look to remain front and center in conversations about the city’s future.
"Mayor Cranley wants 2016 to be the year that we dig in and have real conversations about poverty and take action," Moroski says. "And I will support that. I will also support any initiative that any council member proposes that does the same. And, as I said, if any of these initiatives appear to be hollow, then I will pass judgment. But not until I see what plays out."