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Latest poverty report shows continuing struggle for many Athens Countians
Sunday, February 10, 2013
by David DeWitt
Over 51 percent of Athens County residents are living below self-sufficiency with incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Most of these residents are struggling to pay bills and meet basic needs.
Moreover, nearly 17 percent of the population is living in severe poverty, with income less than 50 percent of the federal poverty line. This is more than double the statewide figure of 6.5 percent.
These are just some of the statistics available in a recent report by the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies titled, "State of Poverty 2012."
With a high number of college students at Ohio University and Hocking College, Athens County poverty has traditionally been difficult to gauge precisely, as many students are supported by their parents and/or student loans.
Community Research Partners, which conducted the study on behalf of the OACAA, said Wednesday that their poverty data from the U.S. Census Bureau includes all people except those living in group quarters such as college dormitories, military group quarters or institutionalized people.
"This means that students who live in college dormitories would not be included in the calculation of poverty data in Athens," the CRP said in an e-mail. "However, students who live in houses and apartments that are independent of a college or university would be treated the same as any other individual in the calculation of poverty for Athens."
Local officials said the report shows that things aren''t looking good.
"Poverty is kind of getting worse on all sides here," said Jack Frech, director of Athens County Job & Family Services, in an interview on Monday. "They emphasize in (the report) that there''s been a 70 percent growth in poverty in the suburbs, which is real eye-popping to a lot of people. These are people who used to be middle-class who are now poor."
Moreover, he noted, there was a 40 percent increase in poor people in Appalachian counties, which were poor to begin with. Overall, poverty increased by 57.5 percent in Ohio between 1999 and 2011 while the population increased by only 1.7 percent.
Frech said the report shows there are more working poor people, people are generally worse off, and poor people are poorer than before.
In Athens County, with a total population of 64,769, almost 25 percent, or 13,710 people, are living in poverty. The five-year average is higher, at 30.3 percent.
"All the job growth we''ve had has been in the service industry," Frech said. "But our unemployment is relatively low, so it''s just more confirmation that the new jobs are all fast-food, service-industry jobs and they don''t pay a living wage."
Athens County had 2,100 unemployed persons in August 2012, or 8 percent. It has 11,425 Medicaid-eligible persons, while 2,126 people are uninsured for an 18.8 percent uninsured rate.
"It''s not that poor people don''t want to work. They do work. When there are jobs available, they take them, even though they''re still poor and stay poor," Frech said, adding that the lack of insurance reflects the fact that service-industry jobs that people take often do not include common benefits such as health insurance.
The report shows that 42.3 percent of Ohioans living below the federal poverty level were indeed employed either part-time or full-time.
"It shows that whatever economic recovery we''ve been having has not really gotten down to poor people," Frech said.
Renters paying more than 35 percent of their income on rent numbered 5,081 people, while overall, so-called cost-burdened renter households stand at 59.9 percent.
"It''s a combination of two things. One is that rent is higher here because of (Ohio) university," Frech said. "The other is that incomes are low. Put those together and you get people who are paying a disproportionate amount of their income in rent."
DOUG STANLEY, DIRECTOR OF Hocking-Athens-Perry Community Action, the local member organization of the statewide group that conducted the study, also noted the problem of underemployment in Athens County when interviewed Tuesday.
"While our total employment picture may not be as bad as other places, we have a lot of part-time jobs, service-industry jobs, jobs with no benefits," he said. "So we have a lot of working people who are still in poverty."
And for the working poor, wages haven''t been increasing.
Wages for Ohio''s top 10 percent increased by $3.99 per hour over the last 22 years while wages for the poorest workers decreased by 71 cents per hour and wages for middle-income workers decreased by $1.34 per hour.
"The manufacturing sector tends to have the higher-paying jobs with benefits, and we just don''t have much manufacturing around here," Stanley said.
In 2010, the top 1 percent of households received 17.2 percent of all income in the U.S. economy, the report notes, in addition to holding 35.4 percent of all wealth. In the same year, the bottom 90 percent received 55.5 percent of all income and held 23.3 percent of all wealth.
Stanley said that the way to get out of poverty is through education, in that the more education one has the less likely one is to be in poverty.
Unfortunately, hourly wages across education levels have been going down. In 2000, an Ohio high-school graduate made on average $10.63 per hour. A college graduate averaged $17.77 per hour. By 2011, that went down to $9.45 per hour for high-school graduates and $16.81 for college grads.
But average debt for public college graduates has increased steeply, jumping from $14,896 in 2001 to $21,740 in 2010. College graduates are facing both higher education debts and higher unemployment. Factoring in private colleges, average student loan debt for Ohioans jumped to $27,713 in 2010. And 68 percent of Ohio college graduates have student loan debt.
Moreover, as wages are going down and debt is going up, costs are rising as well. In the past decade the cost of tuition at a four-year public college has increased 63.4 percent. A gallon of gasoline has increased 75.3 percent. The cost of a carton of eggs has increased 53.8 percent. Health-care costs have increased 36.1 percent. But Ohio''s median hourly wage has increased only 2.9 percent.
Stanley said that in addition to education, another barrier from getting out of poverty is reliable transportation.
"Even though as an agency we''re working on transportation issues and trying to make transportation more viable and accessible, when you have such a wide area to cover, it''s tough to make mass transportation work for employment opportunities," he said.
The report goes on to show that one in six Ohioans lives in poverty, with a household income of about $1,900 or less per month. And more than 100,000 people living in poverty are working full-time. Nearly 80,000 Ohioans aged 25 and older with a bachelor''s degree or higher are living in poverty, and nearly 61,000 veterans are as well.
Between 1999 and 2010, the number of children in poverty grew by 232,199. Almost one in three Ohio children under age 6 lives in poverty. Children make up more than one third of Ohioans who live in poverty.
Since 1981, Ohio''s poverty rate has more or less mirrored that of the United States, trending slightly higher in recent years. In 2011, 16.4 percent of Ohioans were living in poverty compared to 15.9 percent of the nation overall. The lowest rate of poverty for Ohio came in 2002 at 9.8 percent, when the U.S. poverty rate was at 12.1 percent.