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|In response to the poll :
Cleveland No.1 in big-city poverty
Nearly half of children among the poor
Friday, August 27, 2004
Robert L. Smith and Dave Davis
Plain Dealer Reporters
A city hoping to rebound from a recession and from malaise faces a steeper challenge than anyone may have imagined.
Cleveland experienced the highest poverty rate among America's big cities last year, with nearly a third of its people in poverty, according to new figures released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
And nearly one-half of Cleveland's children were among the poor, again the highest rate among American cities with populations of 250,000 or more.
Both numbers stunned and discouraged people who monitor the region's economy and its impact on families.
"Oh, my God," said Claudia Coulton, a social scientist at Case Western Reserve University. She said the city has hovered high on national poverty rankings in recent years, but this is probably the first time it topped such a list.
"It's depressing news," said George Weiner, a specialist in health planning and research for the Center for Community Solutions in Cleveland.
For several years, he said, the city has had a large population living near the poverty line.
The poverty line is defined by the federal government as an income of less than $18,660 in 2003 for a family of four. It does not take much to push a family over that edge, Weiner said.
A lost job, a new child, or an illness can do it.
Across America in 2003, families struggled to maintain their standards of living. Incomes were stagnant, poverty increased, and more than a million more Americans felt the sting of living without health insurance, the Census Bureau reported.
The portrait of a nation treading water comes from two separate coast-to-coast surveys of key quality-of-life indicators.
The Census Bureau released a mountain of data Thursday from those surveys done in 2003. The Current Population Survey set the nation's official poverty rate and detailed America's fortunes with income and health insurance.
The American Community Survey gave communities a look at everything from poverty to education to commute times and home values.
For Northeast Ohio, the report offered both good and bad news. Median household income in the region was up more than $1,600 since 2000 and stood at $42,082 last year, except in Cuyahoga County, where households earned just $38,204.
Commute times in the eight counties dipped slightly to under 23 minutes on average, while the percentage of adults with a college education rose to its highest level ever, 25.8 percent.
But poverty also was up across the region and was a big problem in Cuyahoga County, where 15 percent of residents were estimated to be poor. That's well above Columbus' Franklin County and Cincinnati's Hamilton County.
Among other highlights:
The nation's official poverty rate climbed to 12.5 percent last year, up from 12.1 percent in 2002, as an additional 1.3 million Americans fell into poverty.
The poverty rate for children rose slightly to 17.6 percent.
Nationally, median income stood at $43,300 in 2003, unchanged from 2002. In Ohio, that figure was $41,350 and in the eight-county Northeast Ohio region it was $42,082.
Forty-five million Americans were without health insurance coverage last year, an increase of 1.4 million over the year before.
That means 15.4 percent of the population knows the anxiety felt by Gene and Colleen Myers of Parma. The couple dropped their health care coverage four years ago because they could not afford the high premiums demanded of Gene, a self-employed home remodeler.
"Believe me, we didn't want to do it," Colleen Myers said.
Their worst fears were realized this spring when Gene, 60, was found to have cancer.
He thanks the Lord and the charity care offered by MetroHealth Medical Center for saving his life, but he says he could have used more help.
"It seems to be getting worse and worse in this country," he said. "People are just left out there hanging."
The new poverty and health insurance numbers immediately became part of the presidential campaign. Democrats said the nation is still bleeding jobs and that President Bush has no plans to confront a mounting health care crisis.
Republicans countered that the president's economic policies need time to take effect.
Meanwhile, census officials attributed the rise in the nation's uninsured to a decline in coverage offered by private businesses.
"There certainly has been a long-term trend that employers are offering less-generous plans," said Daniel Weinberg, the Census Bureau's chief of household economic statistics.
At a news conference Thursday in suburban Washington, D.C., Weinberg singled out Cleveland for a dubious distinction.
"Cleveland and Newark [N.J.] had the highest poverty rates in the nation," he declared.
With an estimated 31.3 percent of its people in poverty, Cleveland topped the list of impoverished big cities for the first time in the four years census officials have conducted the American Community Survey.
It was not a steep fall. In 2000, the city's poverty rate of 24.3 percent ranked sixth nationally; by 2002, Cleveland ranked third, with 30.6 percent of its people in poverty.
Coincidentally Thursday, about 16 men and women marked the eighth anniversary of federal welfare reform with a protest march down Cleveland's Lakeside Avenue.
Priscilla Cooper, a self-described welfare mother, led a group called Stop Targeting Ohio's Poor (STOP). Group members assert that the reforms did not deliver the promised jobs and instead cut away America's safety net.
Social scientists see other, bigger sources of blame.
Cleveland's poverty rates actually dropped sharply during the booming national economy of the late 1990s, only to surge again since 2000, said Coulton, co-director of Case's Center on Urban Poverty and Social Change.
She cautions that the latest numbers are from a random sample survey and, like a political poll, carry a margin of error. But she has no doubt about the severity of poverty in Cleveland.
Both Coulton and Weiner blame the lingering recession and Cleveland's inability to attract jobs. The hardships are exacerbated, they said, by housing patterns and child-rearing decisions.
Some of those hardships were highlighted last year in a Plain Dealer series called "Children Left Behind." The analysis showed how Cleveland, when compared with other big cities, consistently ranked last in a number of quality-of-life indicators for children, including poor housing, poverty and single parenting. The newspaper found that in some Cleveland neighborhoods, infants were dying at rates that rival Third World countries like Guatemala.
Single-parent households are the surest indicator of poverty, most social scientists agree, and that all but guarantees a high poverty rate for Cleveland.
In 2001, 67 percent of Cleveland newborns were born to an unmarried woman, compared to 36 percent of newborns in the eight-county region and 34 percent of newborns in Ohio, Weiner said.
"That's absolutely a major problem," he said.
Meanwhile, Cleveland, like most of Ohio, has not emerged from a recession that officially ended in 2003, Coulton said.
As the middle class moves farther and farther from the city, single moms are isolated in an ever-poorer city that offers them mostly low-wage jobs. The national minimum wage is $5.15 an hour.
Against those odds, Coulton said, it takes two to succeed.
"A couple can make it," she said. "But a single parent at minimum wage can't possibly earn her way out of poverty."
Thomas Gaumer, Plain Dealer computer-assisted reporting editor, and reporter James Ewinger contributed to this story.
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© 2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.