With Poverty Up and Most City Population’s Down, What Can Buckeye Leaders Really Do to Turn It All Around?
By John Michael Spinelli
COLUMBUS, OHIO: The news Thursday from just-released Census data showing the populations of most of Ohio’s largest cities are down, combined with the first meeting of a gubernatorial task force to figure out why more Ohioans are in or near poverty status, is not altogether surprising, but it does raise the stakes on what state leaders, from Gov. Ted Strickland to legislative leaders can really do to reverse the slow slide of a state that has lost jobs, talent and is increasing loosing some of the formidable confidence it once had when titan industries like steel, rubber, glass and auto manufacturing dominated its economic landscape.
OHIO’S INCREDIBLE SHRINKING CITIES
Mainstream Ohio newspaper like The Columbus Dispatch and The (Toledo) Blade have published special reports on Ohio cities and their slow ebb from the urban areas people migrated to find jobs in the labor-intensive industries that made Cleveland, Youngstown, Cincinnati and Toledo the destinations zones of yesteryear. But sadly, those days are over, as the US Census estimates released today proved yet again.
Columbus, the state capital, has both the lion’s share of state workers and the people and resources of The Ohio State University, the nation’s largest university with over 50,000 students prowling its campus, two assets that have helped buffet its fate during downturn years, like the state and the nation is experiencing now. Columbus and Cincinnati, located on the Ohio River in southwest Ohio, were the only two cities that gained population in the last year. For Cincinnati, the gain was meager, 826 people, while for the state’s now-largest city, Columbus, 4,779 people now live there.
The losers, in rank order from most to least as a percentage change from 2000, were Youngstown (-9.67%), Cleveland (-8.09%), Dayton (-6.22%), Toledo (-5.79%) and Akron (-4.12%). Cleveland took the biggest hit of any city across the nation.
While some of the exodus from these cities went to other states for reasons related to education or jobs, some of it went to outer-ring suburbs or even further into rural townships, as urban dwellers sought lower taxes, better schools or more land and bigger homes. But with gas at $4-a-gallon and likely to climb as the price of oil imported from foreign nations rises, those who were outbound, may be reconsidering that decision as the price of fuel makes commuting ever more expensive. "With gas being $4 a gallon, I see us and inner-ring suburbs being prime to attract people back, said Edward Kelley, the Mayor of Cleveland Heights, a middle income city near Cleveland, to Sherri Williams of The Columbus Dispatch. “I see people making the choice to return back to where they were."
As a city like Cleveland, which now ranks 40th, and its older inner-ring suburbs star into the face of recession, anticipating a drop in property or income taxes, the concept of regional cooperation seems to make sense. Tax sharing and collaboration on economic development issues are not new ideas, but they are gaining popularity as ways to abate the slide of shrinking cities while gaining a foothold on the future through a symbiotic melding of resources that will keep these older suburbs from really falling apart and boost their economies through collaborative marketing means.
POVERTY UP, SPIRITS DOWN, SOLUTIONS STAGNANT
30 members of the Anti-Poverty Task Force formed by Gov. Strickland to make short-term recommendations to him by Sept. 10 for reducing the number of Ohioans living in poverty met for the first time today. Greg Landsman, the director of the governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, was quoted as saying Strickland is “looking for a top-10 list of things the state can do, very practical, very executable.” Long range plans are due on Strickland’s desk next April.
Nearly 250 individuals from 40 towns and cities across the state will also participate in five work groups – interagency coordination, benchmarks and measures, self-sufficiency pathways, public-private collaboration, and community engagement – which will meet for the first time in July, according to the governor's media release. The task force will review and approve the work groups’ recommendations before submitting to the Governor.
“The members of the task force and work groups are uniquely qualified to find the kind of common-sense solutions we need to address poverty in Ohio. Not only will their recommendations help us find ways to reduce the number of Ohioans in poverty, but they will help these Ohioans lead lives of self-sufficiency and individual prosperity. And Ohio can only get stronger as a result.” [Gov. Strickland, media release]
The problem of rising poverty in Ohio is not new. The dimensions of the problem, though, are worsening as task force members said, citing the cost of living growing faster than wages; an expanding class of working poor; too many students dropping out of school; not enough summer jobs for teens; increasing home foreclosures; a growing immigration population; and unprecedented numbers of grandparents raising children as prime culprits of the angst being felt across the state. Furthermore, Ohioans continue to loose jobs due to industry relocations or downsizing, the rising tide of home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies, the high price of fuel, food and utilities like gas and electric, among other reasons. The economic doldrums the state has waddled in for the past year present a problem for leaders like Strickland and the Ohio General Assembly, who have their hands tied in many ways as state revenues decline from income tax reduction programs, which have prompted the governor to call for cuts in state workers in an effort to fill an expected budget gap of between $733 million and nearly $2 billion by next June, when he and lawmakers do their budget dance again.
A third of Ohioans are unable to afford food, housing, clothes and other necessities, with 3.4 million people in households earning no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level — $42,400 a year for a family of four — a level some economists say is necessary to cover basic needs, published reports noted. I less than a decade, the problem has exploded by a factor of four times.
Immediate solutions were no where to be seen, in spite of calls for changes in federal poverty standards and streamlining government bureaucracy, a tired but easy grievance that never seems to produce any results.
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