This article ran in the Columbus Dispatch on July 24, 2023; Authors Grace Tucker and Erica Thompson

A new poverty report from the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies (OACAA) indicates that Ohio’s poverty rate has increased for the first time in years.

Produced with the Columbus-based Strategic Research Group and released on July 10, the study found that the state’s poverty rate jumped to 13.4% in 2021 from 12.7% in 2020 — marking the first time these poverty numbers have increased year-to-year in over a decade.

Franklin County hovers above statewide figures, with a 2021 overall poverty rate of 14.3%. The rates, pulled from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, indicate the number of residents living under federal poverty levels.

The information has come out amid existing concerns surrounding rising levels of homelessness and food insecurity, specifically in the Columbus area. But the report highlights challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic across the state and identifies common themes among those living in poverty in order to offer wide-reaching solutions.

“As we emerge from this pandemic, things are going to get better,” said Philip Cole, executive director of OACAA, a Columbus-based organization supporting nearly 50 Community Action Agencies addressing needs of low-income families throughout Ohio. “But we still need to make up for the problems that were caused by it.”

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

The rise in statewide poverty rates can be explained by both the job loss during the pandemic, as well as the ending of several safety nets the state put in place, Cole said. For example, Ohio ended additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, amounting to a projected loss of $10 million in food benefits in Franklin County alone. Additionally, Ohio officials estimate as many as 280,000 of the 3.55 million Ohioans enrolled in Medicaid may lose the insurance following the end of federally mandated automatic re-enrollment.

Cole also cited the impact of eliminating some pandemic-era rent assistance initiatives.

“People lost their jobs, but then we were able to keep them in their homes with the rent assistance,” he said.

“And during that time, what we saw around the state was landlords just jacking up the rent. I’ve seen no evidence of it coming back down. … We haven’t had time or money to get a handle on exactly how bad this has been, but all our indications — and it’s all anecdotal — is that it’s pretty bad. When you have to make choices between rent and food, you pay the rent. Or if it’s rent and health care, you pay the rent. Housing always comes first.”

To better help struggling residents, Cole proposed streamlining the numerous eligibility requirements for public assistance programs. And to ease the “benefits cliff,” which occurs when workers lose benefits after a small pay increase, Cole suggested that assistance be tapered off rather than taken away all at once.

“We just need to get a little creative on some of these things,” he said. “We’re making it harder than it is. The goal is, how do we help people move from being poor into being in the middle class? Instead, the tendency is to punish them.”

Learning loss, mental health and transportation are areas of focus

The report identifies three areas of focus essential to tackling increased rates of poverty: pandemic learning loss, a lack of available mental health services and barriers to private and public transportation.

“State support and access to education, mental health and transportation are significantly below the national average. Reduced access impacts our neighbors’ ability to secure higher-paying jobs and reach their fullest potential,” Cole wrote in a news release.

Moreover, analysis of struggles related to learning loss and lack of mental health care due to the pandemic shows that those from low-income households were disproportionately impacted in both areas.

For example, as indicated in the report, the average student experienced a 6.4% decline in test scores from 2019 to 2020, while economically disadvantaged students experienced a 10.2% decline in test scores during the same period.

“We have to make up for the loss of a year, especially (for) kids in lower-income areas,” Cole told The Dispatch. “We should use funds to pay for kids to go to school in the evenings and pick up time on the weekends, and for stronger summer programs to make up for this lost time. But I hear no talk about that.”

The report also makes reference to a “well established link between poverty and mental health” given that, according to the Ohio Department of Medicaid, 22 of Ohio’s 88 counties have no mental health providers registered for Medicaid.

This lack of services available for low-income Ohioans, the report stated, can lead to loss of employment or underemployment. Thus, the cycle of poverty and poor mental health continues.

“I was surprised by the number of counties that don’t have Medicaid-registered mental health care providers,” said Cole, who proposed incentives such as providing scholarships for college students going into the field or paying off student loans for those willing to work in mental health care deserts.

“The pandemic was such a time of great stress on people. The government needs to start working on meeting some of these longer-term needs that were especially exposed by the pandemic.”

The report also reveals how barriers to transportation can also play a part in a cycle of poverty, prohibiting low-income individuals from being able to meet basic needs such as buying groceries.

Of Ohio’s 88 counties, only 63 have a public transit system, according to the study. And though Ohio is the seventh most-populated state in the country, it spends just $6 per capita on public transit funding —well below the nationwide average of $60 per capita.

Cole said improving both access to transportation and education is going to be vital as IntelHonda and other companies bring jobs to central Ohio.

“We need to make sure that there’s equal opportunity and equal access to opportunity for everyone in the area,” he said.

‘A lot of poverty is birth’

Cole also encouraged Ohio residents to volunteer to help those less fortunate.

“We tend to speak in numbers a lot,” he said. “We need to remember that these are human beings and, most of the time, it just means they were born someplace else. A lot of poverty is birth. Get to know and interact with the people who you’re helping out. Get involved in the community.”