According to the most recent data made available by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), Cuyahoga County is home to the greatest number of low-income residents in the state. About 18 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty threshold, about $19,000 for a family of three. In the city of Cleveland, it’s 35 percent. And it’s not just Cleveland that’s struggling. Poverty rates are staggering in many of Ohio’s major cities.
In contrast, neighboring rural Geauga County has a median household income of nearly $70,000 per year (it’s about $44,000 in Cuyahoga County), and poverty sits at about 8 percent, far below the state average. Their schools are high-rated, and the county’s unemployment rate is only 3 percent.
Given this data, it’s easy to cast aside counties like Geauga as being relatively “problem free,” when it comes to poverty, however, closer inspection confirms that this may not be the case. Since the Great Recession, poverty in rural and suburban areas has increased significantly. For example, while just 4 percent of the population in Geauga County receives SNAP benefits, this has increased 105 percent between 2006 and 2014, while food pantry use has sky-rocketed, with visits increasing by 182 percent, one of the highest upsurges in the state during that time period. Analysis of data from the ACS by The Center for Community Solutions suggests that there are pockets within the county where 25 percent of residents have incomes below poverty. To boot, Geauga County has the worst homeowner housing affordability in Northeast Ohio.
Our research team at Community Solutions has spent the past six months engaged with the Geauga County community, through a partnership with Case Western Reserve University, as part of a capacity building and program development initiative undertaken by their local United Way. Using a collaborative model, United Way seeks to help residents to achieve self-sufficiency and mitigate the impact of poverty. Our work in the county has included surveys of residents and local service providers, as well as in-depth discussions with dozens of stakeholders knowledgeable about poverty issues in the county. For us at Community Solutions, this work has cast a light on some of the barriers to self-sufficiency that are unique to rural areas.
Barriers to Self-Sufficiency
Our research indicates that transportation is one of the primary barriers to self-sufficiency among low-income residents in Geauga County, and impedes their ability to access work, child care, food, and needed social services. In contrast to most urban areas, there is no fixed-route public transit available in Geauga, and the rural geography makes walking impractical and often unsafe. Despite this, I was told that some low-income residents walk several miles a day to get to low-wage food service jobs. This dynamic not only makes it hard to get to work, but it can lead to increased feelings of social isolation, especially among older adults. For individuals receiving government benefits with work requirements, such as cash assistance or food stamps, a lack of transportation can be a significant barrier in getting to a work assignment, which could result in the termination of those benefits.
For low-income residents in Geauga County, finding affordable housing can be difficult, as housing costs are high, and rentals are few and far between. And while public housing is available, capacity is limited (as is the case in most areas, including Cuyahoga County), with over 700 people on waiting lists. Some may be surprised to learn that Geauga County is not immune to homelessness, and without a homeless shelter, residents are often left with few options when they lose their home. In fact, many need to come to shelters in Lake or Cuyahoga County while they seek permanent housing, which can be particularly harmful for children, who are then uprooted from their schools and communities.
Despite strong, high-rated schools, some local stakeholders shared that a quality education cannot completely dampen the harsh impact of poverty on children. As is the case in many communities, low-income parents may be forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, resulting in little time at home to support their child’s academics or extra-curricular activities. Schools comprised of predominantly higher income students may be ill-equipped to handle the unique needs of the low-income children who attend, and the social stigma these children face in an otherwise wealth county can be painful.
Limited Service Availability and Small-town Dynamics
Lack of transportation, lack of affordable housing, and wide economic disparities are, of course, not challenges experienced solely in Geauga County, but rather are common in many other rural and suburban parts of the state. Overall, social service resources are often concentrated in urban areas, as is philanthropic capital. The limited availability of services in rural areas can add to the stress on poor families. While there are dedicated providers serving Geauga County, lesser demand means that there are fewer options for families, who may need to travel long-distances to receive services. Home-based service providers may be less inclined to serve areas like Geauga as the drive time between homes means workers can see fewer clients in a day, resulting in less reimbursement. Additionally, residents in rural areas may be less able to access needed health care, as the provider pool is smaller, and therefore may be less inclined to seek the treatment they need.
As is the case in many rural areas, small town dynamics can lead to people having concerns about anonymity when seeking services. Unfortunately, residents in some upper-income communities refuse to acknowledge that poverty is an issue. Others believe that those who can’t afford to live in an area should move elsewhere. Depending on the political climate in a community, the emphasis on self-reliance may be greater. This may lead those who are struggling to feel added hesitance to seek help to avoid the stigma that can go along with accepting assistance. For example, in our survey of Geauga County residents, shame and embarrassment were frequently named as barriers to seeking needed help.
Complex Issues Require Innovative Solutions
The conundrum of a few poor people with big needs surrounded by wealthy neighbors with little need is a tough one. The struggles of the poor in Geauga County are no better or worse than their peers in high poverty areas, but it’s hard to justify investing significant resources in an area to serve so few. For example, by most people’s estimation, the county doesn’t have the population to justify a full-service homeless shelter; however the homeless of Geauga County are no less homeless than those in Cuyahoga County. These types of problems require innovative solutions and strong cross-county partnerships. Additionally, broad efforts to tackle poverty at the policy-level are a must, including reforms that would impact urban and rural families alike, such as a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit and more work supports to match people to available jobs. Acknowledging the interrelationship between rural and urban poverty is also key. For example, poor residents in Geauga County may be forced to seek services in Cuyahoga County, leading to an increased demand in an already overwhelmed community. Likewise, an economic downturn or the loss of major employers in the Cleveland area could have ripple effects on employment and prosperity for residents of Geauga County. And, as public benefits are supported by tax dollars, we all are affected when poverty goes unaddressed. Certainly, there are issues of neighborhood violence, urban blight, and failing schools that don’t plague Geauga County or many other rural areas, though we all pay for the fallout.
A full understanding of both the differences, and the commonalities, among low-income Ohioans across the state is essential for policymakers seeking to address this issue. When resources are limited, it’s easy to view the issue of rural versus urban poverty as a zero-sum game. However, the desire to feed your family, live in safe housing near good schools, and have meaningful employment—these are universal wishes that transcend geography. It’s not a question of better or worse. Poverty is everywhere, and it’s everyone’s problem.