Addressing Poverty Through Regionalism

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Maria participated in the Ohio Works First program to receive unemployment benefits. She had regular work assignments that were part of her compliance with her Self-Sufficiency Contract. However, on one of the days she was supposed to be working, her young daughter was sick and needed to be taken to the hospital. 

A social worker at the hospital filled out a form to excuse her from her work requirement that day, the doctor treating her daughter signed it, the social worker faxed it to the Cuyahoga County Job & Family Services and then called several times to confirm they received it—but was never able to reach anyone. Later, the county said they never got the form, Maria’s benefits were suspended for six months, and she was evicted and became homeless—along with her two children.

Unfortunately, Maria’s story is not exceptional. Accessing and maintaining benefits and services necessary to financially stabilize families requires a team of people. They must be trained to fill out hard-to-understand forms, submit paperwork according to exacting specifications, and follow a strict schedule to maintain these benefits. And this is all done through decades-old technology and a Kafka-esque administrative system.

If you or someone you know have ever had to file for unemployment or any other government benefits, you’ve gotten a taste of just how difficult it is to get help when you need it most.

“I don’t need government benefits. Why should I care about this?”

Besides our shared humanity and that we have a moral obligation to care for those who are suffering and in need? We should also care because it DOES impact all of us, albeit in ways we may not immediately recognize as such.

Cleveland Heights’ poverty rate is 18.7%—compared to the U.S. rate of 12.3% and the Ohio rate of 14.9%. While our city’s poverty rate is not the highest in the region (East Cleveland: 40.5%, Cleveland: 35.2%, and Euclid: 21.9%), we are also not the lowest (University Heights: 13.4%, South Euclid: 13.1%, Shaker Heights: 8.6%). But the impacts of poverty do not stop at city borders.

Crime and Residential Instability

Our region has seen an uptick in crime recently. And those committing crimes generally don’t stay within one city. Recent carjackings have been reported in several area cities, including Cleveland Heights and University Heights. Many shootings and reports of gunfire in Cleveland Heights in the past year have been traced to people coming into our city from surrounding cities.

Although the correlation between crime rates and poverty is difficult to parse out (what crimes are being measured, how poverty is being defined, on what level it is being analysed, etc.), studies indicate that the key is not poverty but rather instability. Low-income areas that also have low crime rates are those with strong social organization, higher rates of high school graduation, job opportunities for younger people, and residential stability, among other factors.

Other studies have found that high crime rates correlate strongly in areas with high rates of poverty and residential instability as well as low high school graduation rates. If we want to combat rising crime in our city and region, then we need to work to financially stabilize households—and entire communities.

Education and Student Transience

In Cleveland Heights, the demographic group with the highest rates of poverty are women aged 18 to 24, followed by women aged 25 to 34. Another way to look at this is that in our city, the demographic groups with the highest rates of poverty are mothers of young children.

Without financial stability, they move a lot. And so do their children.

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights district has found that the longer they have a student in their schools, the better that student’s outcomes will be. Their highest graduation rates, college acceptance rates, and scholarship amounts are with students who were in the district all the way from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Stability is a key part of educational success.

Similarly, schools that have separated school performance scores according to student transience found that students who moved around a lot had, on average, lower test scores. Thus, schools with larger numbers of transient students will also see lower school performance scores. 

And, of course, lower test scores—which largely drive those school scores on real estate sites such as Zillow and Redfin—also impact surrounding property values. When people in our community struggle, it is reflected in multiple indicators, property values being just one.

Regionalism and Partnerships

Thus, when people qualify for—and need—government financial benefits and services but find it hard to access and maintain those services through the county:

  • They move more frequently.
  • Many lower-income areas struggle to maintain community cohesion and stability.
  • Community instability contributes to higher crime rates.
  • Crime frequently crosses city borders.

And . . .

  • Students who move around a lot don’t perform as well on assessment tests.
  • Schools are then rated lower.
  • Surrounding property values stagnate or suffer.
  • Students who have moved around a lot also have lower high school graduation rates.
  • Lower graduation rates correlate with higher crime rates (see above).

Poverty levels may vary widely across cities—and within cities as well. But the impacts of financial instability are felt throughout the region. When Cuyahoga County Job & Family Services makes accessing and maintaining vital benefits and services difficult, all of our cities and everyone in them are, to varying degrees, negatively impacted.

I have been told that even though the effects of poverty are felt most acutely at the local level, there’s very little that can be done locally to counter it. While large-scale programs are the most impactful for providing a basic safety net for the well-being of everyone in our communities, we cannot effectively tackle the consequences of poverty if we aren’t willing to talk about it and at least try to lessen it.

And because I believe that the greatest opportunities for regionalism are those issues that don’t stop at city borders, taking on poverty—and the instability, stress, and other negative effects it brings—should be a priority for regional cooperation among municipal leaders.

We can begin by uniting to demand that Cuyahoga County Job & Family Services does everything it can to make accessing and maintaining benefits and services easier for people who qualify.

Activists have repeatedly (and thus far unsuccessfully) advocated for the county to implement block-chain technology* through a mobile app for submitting applications and forms. The benefits of this would mean that:

  • Forms and documents do not need to be repeatedly submitted.
  • Completing applications can be made more user-centric.
  • Applications can be processed more quickly.
  • People can access and maintain benefits and services more easily.

But implementing technology to streamline access to benefits and services is in no way a silver bullet to poverty. Municipal leaders need to work together along with private and academic partners to better understand and develop strategies to decrease poverty. These could include (but are not limited to):

  • Creating participatory civic processes that give a greater voice in decision-making to poor and marginalized communities
  • Partnering closely with community stakeholders when working on community-based initiatives
  • Increasing access and affordability to critical infrastructure, such as public transportation and broadband
  • Connecting people to programs to increase affordable home ownership in lower-income communities
  • Supporting the development and growth of small businesses in lower-income areas
  • Improving public services, spaces, and facilities in and near lower-income communities
  • Developing programs to build social cohesion in lower-income areas
  • Initiating specialized outreach programs to more impactfully connect with vulnerable groups

In a city with a poverty rate approaching 20%, almost one in five of our residents are living lives of stress, anxiety, and want due to lack of money and opportunity. They are continually on the edge of catastrophe. And they are our neighbors. 

When we decrease those numbers, when we help people achieve financial stability and find pathways to opportunity, we will not only help them. We will also increase well-being, resilience, and prosperity throughout our city and region.

As Bryan Stevenson, the founder of Equal Justice Initiative, said: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.”

* Block-chain is a kind of database that stores information in blocks of data that are linked—like a chain. The blocks of data are linked together as they are entered—thus, in chronological order. Because of this, the data entered is irreversible: when someone enters a piece of data (such as uploads an image of a birth certificate or a utility bill or fills out an online application), there is a permanent record of that data uploaded at that date and time.