Should City of Cincinnati Change the Way it Funds Anti-Poverty Initiatives? Some Think So

Currently, much of the city's human services funding goes through a committee overseen by the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Some Cincinnati City Councilmembers want to change that and bring allocation of those funds back to City Hall.

click to enlarge Cincinnati City Hall - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati City Hall

Last year, Cincinnati had the fifth-highest poverty rate of U.S. cities with more than 250,000 people, Census data shows. 

How should the city portion out funds that go to organizations fighting poverty, helping Cincinnatians find employment, pushing back against the drug addiction crisis and other efforts? Some Cincinnati City Councilmembers want to see a new approach. 

Currently, the city taps a board called the Human Services Advisory Committee, overseen by the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, make those calls. This year, HSAC oversaw the expenditure of more than $4.8 million from the city. 

Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard, however, wants city administration to explore bringing the process for selecting the groups receiving the money back into City Hall. She introduced a motion asking the city do begin doing that, but it was narrowly defeated in council's meeting today.

Councilmembers Wendell Young, Greg Landsman and Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman supported the motion.

"I respect and admire United Way as an organization," Dennard said. "But as we start to peel back the layers and looking at poverty and disparity in our city, we have to do things differently. A lot of people that benefit from the funding now are people who are African-American. But the organizations (getting funded) aren't led by African-American people. Politics aside, the numbers aren't moving, and for us to continue to do things the same way and expect different results... that can't be."  

Mayor John Cranley took issue with that assertion, however, saying that the city's anti-poverty initiatives have moved the needle.

"In fact, the poverty rate has been going down for the last five years, which I believe is the result of a number of things," Cranley said. The mayor said that the economy is the biggest factor in fighting poverty, touting incentives that he says attracted big corporations like General Electric, Mercy Health and others to the city. He also argued that tripling the human services fund and his own Hand Up Initiative have helped fight poverty. 

"There is a lot more to be done, but it is not the case that things are getting worse," he said. "In fact, they are getting better." 

That's true, to a point. 

Cincinnati's 25.2-percent poverty rate represents the lowest poverty level here since the onset of the Great Recession, but not a full recovery. In 2007, the year before the recession, the city's poverty level was 23.5 percent. It has been as high as 31.3 percent in 2013. 

Cranley said that the city had moved from having the fifth-highest poverty rate of major cities in the U.S. to having the 11th-highest. Census data released last month, however, had Cincinnati with the fifth-highest poverty rate of cities with more than 250,000 people in 2018. 

Though poverty has fallen here since 2013, it hasn’t fallen nearly as fast as it has statewide — where there has been a 12.5-percent drop in the past five years — or nationally, where poverty has decreased by 15 percent in that time.

Poverty is also still much more prevalent among the city's black residents. Roughly 40 percent of the city's black residents live in poverty compared to 16 percent of its white residents, data shows. 

Dennard shot back that improvement hasn't come fast enough and that tax incentives for big employers — or "corporate welfare," as she called them — alone won't solve the problem.

"I'm not really sure in what universe you're spending your time," she said. "What you said, basically, is that if we give more money to corporations we'll do better. That's not the case. I talk to people every single day who are getting left behind." 

Dennard and Young both also cited a dust-up last year involving United Way in which the nonprofit's then-CEO Michael Johnson left after alleging "subtle threats" and a "hostile work environment." The departure of Johnson, who is black, set off a debate about race and leadership at the organization.

A group of prominent African American leaders protested Johnson’s treatment, saying his departure is indicative of the resistance black leaders often face in Cincinnati. Johnson's supporters pointed out his short tenure — he served just three months — his positive results at his former job and his presence in the community — including his active role during the city's struggle around downtown tent cities — as reasons he was a great fit for UWGC.

The Cincinnati Black Agenda, a group led by former Cincinnati mayor Dwight Tillery, called for United Way to be removed from the human services funding process following the shakeup. 

Roughly 64 percent of those served by programs funded through HSAC are African American, according to reports from the committee, though few of the organizations funded by the process are led by African-Americans.

Councilmember Greg Landsman said he had another reason for supporting moving the funding process away from United Way. Landsman says that he would like to see the city "moving all of our contracts where there is external operating support to performance-based contracts," he said. "I support bringing all of those contracts in-house... that includes, in my opinion, those programs that are being funded through the United Way process. I think it's critically important that those have the best results possible because of how important it is for us to make much more significant progress as it relates to opportunities and poverty and closing any number of gaps." 

There are other arguments against switching from the United Way process, however, including the idea that politics and cronyism could more easily creep into the allocation of funds. 

"We all share — and many of us experience painfully in our professional lives — your concern about the pervasive racism afflicting work in institutions across this city," members of the HSAC wrote to city council last December following the controversy over Johnson's departure from United Way and calls to remove the organization from the funding process. "But we all agree that the Human Services Advisory Committee process helps counteract bias and favoritism, which are byproducts of racism, by ensuring that grants are awarded according to fair, transparent and evidence-based criteria. This process protects the city's human services grant-making process from power plays and lobbying which can create significant disadvantages for small qualified grassroots and minority nonprofits." 

Councilmember David Mann agrees with that assessment, and remembers a time before the United Way process existed. 

"I think that would be a very unfortunate decision," Mann said in explaining his vote against the motion. "I don't think it's helpful to put politics right back in the middle of it... I lived that way during my earlier service on council."