The Columbus Dispatch
Franklin County studying ways to solve ‘alarming’ poverty.
By Kimball Perry, The Columbus Dispatch April 16, 2018
Christine Bennett discusses homework with her granddaughters, from left Linh Hustead 12, Geneva Hustead 9, and Asia Hustead 11, in their two-bedroom apartment in Columbus. Bennett is caring for the girls, whose mother is in prison. Eric Albrecht/Dispatch
Concerned because so many in Franklin County live in poverty — one in four children, and one in six residents — despite a strong regional economy, the county’s commissioners are investing in a yearlong study to find solutions for the most vulnerable.
“There’s a lot of people out here (who) need help,” said Christine Bennett, 52, of the West Side.
Bennett is among them.
With a daughter in prison, she cares for three grandchildren who are 12 or younger. They have to move because officials discovered there is too much lead in their home. The family gets public medical benefits and cash assistance but doesn’t qualify for food assistance because Bennett’s income is just over the limit.
“It’s very difficult. I lost my husband five years ago,” she said.
For some time, county leaders have considered what can be done to improve what Commissioner John O’Grady calls “alarming” poverty statistics in a generally economically successful population. He and fellow commissioners Marilyn Brown and Kevin Boyce decided to make it their top priority.
The commissioners now have asked companies to submit proposals on how to identify and recommend solutions for Franklin County’s poverty issues.
“We’re not just providing checks and a subsidy. We’re providing a pathway to prosperity,” Boyce said. “The best social service agency is a good-paying job.”
His father was killed when Boyce was 7. His family lived in poverty, moving 11 times before he graduated from high school. Their big break came when his mother got a job at the Postal Service. “You’d have thought we hit the lottery,” Boyce said.
As a state representative, Boyce saw the flip side of the prosperity and economic success driving central Ohio. His district included pockets — often several generations — of families affected by poverty.
“Some neighborhoods and communities have upwards of 50 percent poverty,” Boyce said.
A 2015 Redfin study deemed Columbus the nation’s least economically diverse large city. A 2015 University of Toronto study found that Columbus was the second-most economically segregated American city, behind Austin, Texas.
“Your destiny should not be determined by your ZIP code,” county Administrator Kenneth Wilson said.
The economic disparity exists despite the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services’ $86 million budget this year and the tens of millions more spent by other government entities and nonprofit, faith-based and other agencies that provide food, health and other social services to the needy. The federal poverty level in the 48 lower states is set at an annual income of $25,100 for a family of four.
“It’s never been just about handouts,” O’Grady said. “We want to give people an opportunity to help themselves. We can’t just go throwing money at it.”
Already, Franklin County provides job training, has developed an internship program for construction trades to fill jobs in a field desperate for workers, and provides subsidies for companies such as Fortuity, a call center seeking to hire and train workers living in poverty. The county also upped its employees’ minimum hourly wage to $13.69.
The area’s unemployment rate is low, fluctuating around 4 percent, but large pockets of poverty remain.
Brown said that’s because so many of the needy work two or more low-paying jobs and sometimes still need food or medical assistance to survive.
“This is the issue of the community, and it’s the community’s responsibility — employers, employees, everybody,” Brown said. “The real goal is not to keep them on public assistance, but to help them” become employed and paying taxes.
The contract for the report, which probably will cost more than $100,000, is expected to be awarded in June, with the report presented to commissioners a year after that.
Boyce acknowledges that the process to obtain social services is complicated and bureaucratic and doesn’t provide the best services.
“We are addressing the symptoms instead of the causes,” Boyce said.
All three commissioners expect that the report will show overlaps and gaps in social service systems. They want to know where and how that can be fixed.
The commissioners suspect that the finished report will suggest a temporary steering committee to help collaboration of all social services. It will look at what is working or not working in other governments and whether their best practices can be applied here.
“There’s many facets to poverty. That’s why we need experts to look at it,” Wilson said.
Now is the time, officials insist, to make a hard push to address local poverty because the region is predicted to have up to 1 million more residents by 2050.
“As we continue to grow,” Wilson said, “we’re going to suffer if we don’t solve this.”