Road to Nowhere

Why a growing number of Cincinnatians struggle to break free from the cycle of poverty

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t Lower Price Hill’s Oyler School, the nurses begin many students’ visits to the school’s expansive medical wing with one question: “Are you hungry?” In many cases, the students aren’t actually sick; they’re genuinely confusing a stomachache or other symptoms of illness with the most basic need to eat.

“Working here really keeps me humble,” says Melissa Marshall, a registered nurse at Oyler School and College Hill’s Aiken High School. “Here I am complaining that it’s Monday and I had a great weekend, and then here I am at school and these poor kids are coming in that have completely abnormal home lives.”

Behind the headlines of redevelopment and revitalization local leaders often champion as signs of Cincinnati’s post-recession momentum, it’s easy to forget some nearby neighborhoods still lack the basic resources necessary for higher economic aspirations. But just a six-minute drive divides two very different worlds in Cincinnati — one represented by the bustle and revitalization of southern Over-the-Rhine and downtown, and the other seen in the stagnation and lack of resources in Lower Price Hill.

The grim facts are undeniable: Roughly 34 percent of Cincinnatians live below the federal poverty line, including more than half — about 53 percent — of Cincinnati’s children. At that rate, Cincinnati ranks No. 2 for highest child poverty among 76 major U.S. cities, according to the Children’s Defense Fund.

At the same time, recent research indicates Cincinnati ranks at the bottom of major U.S. areas for social mobility. Among 100 major metropolitan areas, Cincinnati places No. 82 for climbing from the bottom of the income ladder to the very top, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project.

The data paints the picture of a city stricken with poverty and offering the poor few chances to actually climb out of hopeless situations most people hear little about.

Meanwhile, every level of government has participated in cuts to programs that help Cincinnati’s worst-off, including human services funding, Supplemental Assistance for Needy Families (food stamps) and benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Given the circumstances, how do low-income families in Cincinnati survive? And what, if anything, is happening in the city to help alleviate some of the most dire situations? The answers to those questions, many local officials and activists acknowledge, don’t provide much comfort to impoverished families in the short-term. And without drastic efforts to curb long-standing downward trends, poverty will continue to be an enduring reality in Cincinnati. 

Falling short

“If you’re in this area, there’s not a lot of opportunity for you to develop economically,” says Mary Knauff, director of community engagement at Lower Price Hill Community School, an adult learning center. “It has such a high concentration of poverty that it’s hard to develop within it.”

The complaint is far from unique. Among the city officials, school personnel, local activists and low-income families CityBeat spoke to about poverty in Cincinnati, common frustrations demonstrate an enduring cycle: Governments are failing at providing for the poor; the economy is still terrible; there aren’t enough jobs; and the few jobs that exist don’t pay well enough.

Based on several interviews and observations, the people actually struggling with poverty are very different from the oft-cited cliché of lazy people content with relying on government assistance or charitable aid to meet basic needs. People actually living this reality cite specific external factors that make it difficult to mobilize out of dire situations, and their frustrations are backed by research showing there’s much more going on in the economy than the myth of an underclass full of low-life moochers.  

Amber Brown, a mother of two who lives in the Villages at Roll Hill, a neighborhood of subsidized housing near Mount Airy, says in 2010 her employer forced her to choose between work and school by refusing to change her work hours.

“I was like, ‘I’m not getting anywhere. This is a dead-end job. I’m ready for my career, for my daughter,’” she says. “My boss just wasn’t having it. I had been there for four years, and I thought that would count for something. … He told me to pick school or work.”

Ultimately, Brown picked school. With her GED — the equivalent of a high school diploma — in hand, Brown is now working toward an associate’s degree in early childhood development. 

But the journey has been rough. As an unemployed mother, Brown now relies on help from the father of her children, food stamps and government-issued Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (colloquially known as “cash assistance”), on top of her housing subsidies, to sustain herself and her children. Brown says she’s tried to find full-time work, but it’s been a struggle to find anything beyond part-time.

“Sometimes I wish hadn’t stopped working to go to school. As bad as it sounds, I really do,” she says. “I feel that from that point on, there’s where my life went downhill. Before then, I had my job for four years; I didn’t want for nothing; I didn’t need for nothing; I had my own apartment; I was OK.”

She adds, “Once I decided to have my family and try to better my life and go to school, that’s when everything got worse.”

Among several low-income families CityBeat approached for this story, Brown’s situation is eerily typical. Given the state of the economy, that’s unsurprising. The nation remains far below what economists call “potential growth” and “full employment,” two indicators of a fully recovered job market.

For some, the negative economic indicators translate to a vicious cycle of long-term unemployment.

Patricia Hamilton is an unemployed single mother diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who also currently lives at the Villages at Roll Hill. Hamilton lost her job of three years and her home during the Great Recession — an experience millions of Americans went through in 2007 and 2008.

“When I lost my job, there was nowhere else to go to regain my employment,” she says. “They say when it rains, it pours. It poured. So now I got my umbrella, and I’m trying to weather the storm, but it seems like I’m not getting as far as I would like to.”

After she lost her home and job, Hamilton decided to put herself through college for an associate’s degree in business management. But even after she received her degree in 2011, Hamilton says she struggled to find full-time work and was left dispirited. 

Then she got pregnant, which offered some hope.

“I think what really brought me out of depression is I ended up being pregnant. I just had my baby in July and I’m like, ‘I have to be able to do something,’” Hamilton says.

Since then, Hamilton says she’s tried to find a new job, but it’s been difficult to explain the pregnancy-induced gap in her résumé without actually mentioning the pregnancy — something she wants to avoid out of fear of discrimination.

To shore up her résumé, she’s now volunteering at the community center in Roll Hill. She also applies for seasonal work.

“As long as I can get my foot in the door, I know I’ll get hired on,” Hamilton says. “I got great work ethic. Every company that I’ve ever worked for, I was a great employee.”

But Hamilton worries that it might not be enough. She’s now considering going back to school for her bachelor’s degree, but she acknowledges that could, in a way, make her gap of unemployment even worse.

Hamilton is not alone. Several studies show that employers discriminate against applicants who have been unemployed for long periods of time. 

In one study, Rand Ghayad of Northeastern University sent out 3,360 fake, varied résumés in response to 600 job ads. As interview requests came back, Ghayad found people who had been out of work for six months or more very rarely got called back compared to people who have been out of work for less time, regardless of relevant work experience.

Regardless of whether employers are justified in discriminating against the long-term unemployed, the effect is unquestionably bad for society: By struggling to find work, the long-term unemployed stay jobless longer. That keeps them on public assistance for longer periods of time, and it might cause them to drop out of the workforce altogether — costing the economy another potentially productive member. And it all occurs when someone is already struggling to make ends meet.

Or as Hamilton puts it, “It’s like they kick you while you’re down.”

Calling for help

For some conservatives, the issue of poverty goes back to basic philosophical questions: Why should the public pay for other people’s problems? Aren’t poor people to blame for their bad circumstances?

A poll released in January by the Pew Research Center documented the conservative mindset: About 65 percent of Republicans agreed government aid to the poor “does more harm than good by making people too dependent on government.” About half of Republicans — 51 percent — said a person is poor because of a “lack of effort on his or her own part.”

Local advocates argue the conservative perspective underestimates the external economic pressures falling on families.

“The jobs aren’t there, and the jobs that are there are not paying what the jobs in the previous economic recoveries were paying,” says Kurt Reiber, CEO of the Freestore Foodbank.

By several economic indicators, Reiber’s point rings true.

Nationwide, there were only enough job openings for 38.5 percent of job seekers in December, the latest month with available data, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That means more than 60 percent of job seekers simply couldn’t find a job.

Long-term unemployment around the country also remains at historic highs following the Great Recession. By the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ estimate, 35.8 percent of the unemployed in January had been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. In comparison, the rate shifted between 10 and 25 percent in the two decades prior to the recession.

Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California in Davis and author of The Son Also Rises, an upcoming book on social mobility, says the situation may be even grimmer for impoverished families than previous research suggests. By analyzing surname data spanning centuries around the globe, Clark reached a conclusion that seriously dents the reality of the American Dream: Social mobility is extremely low, and it’s always been that way around the world.

Clark looked at surnames and accounted for income, education and other factors to establish a long-term conclusion. The same low-mobility findings appeared around the world, even in countries with massive social safety nets like Sweden. That means, on a global scale, it’s incredibly difficult for families to sustain rapid movement from the lower classes to the middle or upper classes from generation to generation.

“There’s no sign that we have significantly increased social mobility in the modern world compared to the pre-industrial world,” Clark says.

Still, Clark cautions that his upcoming book and research are not meant to completely rule out public policy that helps low-income families. Quite the contrary, he says.

“It’s much better to be in Sweden and be in the bottom 10 percent than it is to be in the United States,” Clark explains.

Given his findings, Clark argues states and nations should acknowledge the limits of low social mobility and do everything in their power to elevate living standards — a big change from the current U.S. model, which Clark sees as over-punishing the poor and over-rewarding the wealthy for their achievements or lack thereof.

Other research backs Clark’s call for aid to the poor. Columbia University researchers on Dec. 5 released a study that found the U.S. poverty rate remained relatively flat between 1967 and 2012 before accounting for welfare programs. But once researchers added welfare programs into the equation, they found one in 10 Americans are kept out of poverty by government assistance.

For at least one Cincinnatian, the programs were enough to establish a more secure financial foothold.

Nikki Carr, a 35-year-old single mother from Western Hills, calls herself “one of the fortunate ones.” Although Carr says her situation could be better, she is happy just to have made it to where she is today.

After Carr got pregnant and subsequently lost her job in 2003 — as a pregnant woman, she could no longer make the on-foot commute to work — she fell back to government aid to survive. She moved to the subsidized Villages at Roll Hill and relied on cash assistance and food stamps to make up for her lack of income while she went to school.

“It was really hard,” Carr says. “I don’t know how people are surviving off a welfare check alone.”

Eventually, Carr graduated with an associate’s degree in medical administrative assistance. Today, she works as a home health aide and no longer needs food stamps or cash assistance to provide for herself or her child. She still uses subsidized housing, but she says her situation has clearly improved compared to just a few years ago.

In fact, Carr now has room to dream bigger. She says she’s considering going back to school so she can eventually open up her own group home.

“There’s a lot of elderly out here, and they do live in their own home, but they don’t get the help that they need from their families,” Carr says. “I don’t like that.”

The altruistic ambitions represent a narrative of taking aid and then giving back that Americans love to believe is happening around the country: Even as she remains a low-income mother, Carr is ready to give back to the community that supported her through worse times.

As for conservatives’ claims that people who rely on assistance are no-good moochers, Carr strongly disagrees.

“This assistance is needed for people to continue to live,” she says.

Desperate measures

For local advocates of the poor, the concern is what happens when people aren’t as fortunate as Carr. With Cincinnati’s child poverty rate actually worsening relative to other cities, what happens to the families that fall through the cracks?

Research indicates that poverty can turn into a self-perpetuating cycle. It can hinder health outcomes. It can strain intellectual growth. If it becomes so concentrated that businesses and residents begin viewing a city or neighborhood as a lost cause, it can stifle economic mobility for those who remain.

One study, released last October by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, found poverty might hinder early childhood brain development. Specifically, brain scans of children showed poverty correlates with less white and gray matter, which are associated with the speed of neurological transmissions and intelligence.

Another paper, published in January by researchers at the University of California in San Francisco, found poverty makes people sick because they can’t afford food. Acknowledging the problem afflicts one in seven U.S. households, the authors looked into the effect such poverty might produce in terms of health outcomes.

“Risk for hypoglycemia admission (among people with diabetes) increased 27 percent in the last week of the month compared to the first week in the low-income population, but we observed no similar temporal variation in the high-income population,” the authors concluded. “These findings suggest that exhaustion of food budgets might be an important driver of health inequities.”

Some of the health trends show up in local data. A study released in November by the Cincinnati Health Department found life expectancies in the city vary from neighborhood to neighborhood by more than 20 years.  

When paired with other data, neighborhood life expectancies closely correlate with median family income. Lower Price Hill residents can expect to live to their mid-60s, and their median family income is $26,406 a year; Mount Adams residents on average live until their mid-80s, and their median family income is $126,042 a year. The same trend — higher income correlating with higher life expectancy — broadly applies to the rest of Cincinnati, according to CityBeat’s review of data from the Health Department and U.S. Census Bureau.

Rocky Merz, a spokesperson for the Health Department, acknowledges the findings are troubling, but he cautions that various factors — not just income — could play into the massive discrepancy between neighborhoods.

“Without a doubt, at this point we have more questions than we have answers. And that’s the point,” Merz says. “We want to start with the baseline data and work backwards from there.”

But he also notes, “I don’t think (the correlation) surprised anyone, intuitively. I think people understand if you have a job, a lot of these other problems go away.”

The stark health discrepancies from neighborhood to neighborhood also speak to one of Cincinnati’s biggest problems: the extreme socioeconomic and racial segregation in the city. The issue is obvious in any review of the U.S. Census Bureau data, with many neighborhoods clearly divided in terms of income and race.

According to a study from the Equality of Opportunity Project, the segregation is a bad sign for locals trying to climb out of poverty.

“Areas with larger black populations tend to be more segregated by income and race, which could affect both white and black low-income individuals adversely,” the project’s leaders write. “Indeed, we find a strong negative correlation between standard measures of racial and income segregation and upward mobility.”

The Equality of Opportunity Project ranked Cincinnati No. 82 for bottom-to-top economic mobility among 100 major “commuting zones” around the country. If someone starts at the bottom fifth of the income ladder, the odds of climbing to the top fifth in Cincinnati are only 5.1 percent. In comparison, the top 10 areas’ odds were 10.5 percent or higher.

The implication: Not only is Cincinnati inflicted with high levels of poverty and the terrible outcomes it causes, but the city also does a worse job than others at making sure people can rise out of those poor situations.

Given the grim outlook, many local advocates worry about the desperate and sometimes illegal measures people will take to make ends meet, particularly as paychecks and government assistance run out toward the end of the month.

“If you have no income, you can sell your body. If you’re a man, you can become a scrapper,” says Elaine Wolter, a retired public health nurse who is helping Childhood Food Solutions, a local group that provides food to low-income children, set up its operations in Lower Price Hill.

According to Childhood Food Solutions’ data, there are 96 days in the year in which children are deemed at risk for 24-hour hunger. These days typically come toward the end of the month or during extended school breaks, when school lunches aren’t available to fill gaps and after public assistance runs out. 

Facing the prospects of running out of food for themselves or their children, Wolter and other advocates for the poor say some low-income people turn to illegal activities to generate income, including prostitution, stealing and drug dealing.

The anecdotal observations match what many activist groups know to be true: Desperate circumstances drive desperate actions.

“Poverty is a major driver of the human trafficking industry,” according to the Freedom Project, an organization working against human trafficking. “Those trapped in poverty are keen to obtain a better life for themselves and their families, and these vulnerable people are preyed on by unscrupulous people offering jobs, training, opportunities, remuneration and better life prospects.”

Crisis response

The experiences of locals and vast research into poverty present a crisis to many local, state and national leaders. 

But to some extent, every level of government has failed the impoverished population. Cincinnati continuously cut human services funding from its original goal — 1.5 percent of the total operating budget — throughout the past decade. The state government recently permitted economic exemptions on food stamps to expire for many “able-bodied” childless adults. The federal government also allowed emergency benefits for the long-term unemployed to expire, affecting more than 36,000 Ohioans at the end of 2013.

Still, some groups have stepped up to the difficult task of aiding Cincinnati’s impoverished.

Within the city government, Councilwoman Yvette Simpson is taking the most ambitious approach to addressing poverty through a comprehensive study of the city’s youth. If it goes as planned, the study will provide a top-down look at poverty and other youth issues across the city. The goal is to establish a clear set of outcome-driven priorities for lawmakers and partnerships with private groups.

One of the most exciting aspects, according to Simpson, is how the city could recalibrate its many youth programs, which add up to at least $19 million, once the study is complete. If all of that money and the city’s partnerships with charity groups are refocused through the study’s findings, the city could potentially do a lot more to reduce the effects of poverty than it is currently doing through the millions of scattered dollars allocated to human services, youth outreach and other policies each year.

“The challenge I have is that there are lots of resources that are already being expended in this area,” Simpson says. “My theory is that the people who need the help the most aren’t really getting it.”

Down the stairs of City Hall, Mayor John Cranley says he’s working on several initiatives to tackle poverty in Cincinnati by reducing long-term unemployment.

“Folks who have been out of work for a long time have a very difficult time getting rehired,” Cranley says. “The health statistics and the income statistics for those who have been unemployed for 12 months or longer are devastating. It’s basically life ending.”

In response, Cranley wants to fund his “Hand Up Initiative” in the next city budget. The initiative would create a team of local organizations to provide more job training programs. Participants who graduate from the training could then apply to another program that would provide short-term, part-time work while they search for long-term, full-time jobs.

At the same time, other city leaders are tapping into outside sources to help alleviate poverty. Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld recently announced the Alliance for Community and Educational Success (ACES), which will bring together city officials and the Cincinnati Board of Education to help align and share policy goals.

“We want to establish the framework and make sure the right culture is there,” says Sittenfeld, who also serves as assistant director of the Community Learning Center Institute. “Then people can do what elected officials are supposed to do: roll up your sleeves and come up with smart, viable policies.”

For their part, Cincinnati Public Schools have already tapped into the community learning center model to build hubs of resources that can help address poverty. With nearly three-fourths of their students classified as economically disadvantaged, school officials say the programs help students focus on learning by removing potentially painful and dangerous distractions.

For example, Oyler School in Lower Price Hill offers a health center, a dental clinic, vision care and mental health services, among various other resources. These services can provide opportunities that simply aren’t available in a neighborhood decimated by poverty and little economic hope.

Then there are the charity groups, including the Freestore Foodbank and Childhood Food Solutions, which are largely funded by private contributors and foundations. Even though institutions like Oyler School now offer three meals a day, many advocates worry about the health and food needs of children during the weekends and extended school breaks.

By providing what Freestore Foodbank calls “power packs” and Childhood Food Solutions dubs “food sacks” through the schools, children can go home each weekend with multiple meals that can keep them and their families afloat just a little bit longer.

“Towards the end of the month, we knew there was hunger,” says Tony Fairhead, executive director of Childhood Food Solutions. “And if you don’t have your neighbor, your friend, your aunt or your uncle to go to, there’s just hunger.”

How far all of these fractured solutions can go is certainly unknown, considering the many factors involved in the cycle of poverty. Almost everyone involved acknowledges there’s no silver bullet for solving the issue, but they argue different levels of government are making matters worse with their spending cuts.

If governments finally decide to confront the issue more seriously, they’ll find a large population prepared to put in the work to better themselves, despite the lack of opportunities up to this point. 

“The people that are in the food lines, they want to work,” says Reiber, of Freestore Foodbank. “All they need is a hand up as opposed to a handout.” ©

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