Poverty & Safety Net
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Poverty Speaks 2023: Climbing out of poverty

March 18, 2024
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By: Angela Maher, Research Associate

Alex Dorman, Research Fellow

Forty percent of low-income residents of Cuyahoga County reported that their financial situation is worse today than it was two years ago. People experiencing poverty report a rising perception that it is getting harder to get out of poverty, yet many hold hope their incomes will improve over the next year.

Cleveland is the second poorest large city in the United States.

Cleveland is the second poorest large city in the United States, but it’s still rare for policymakers and community leaders to hear from many people who live at or near the poverty level. The Center for Community Solutions and Step Forward have collected new information directly from low-income residents of Cuyahoga County about the issues and challenges they face. This survey replicates questions that were asked four years ago, comparing perceptions and experiences of poverty. This report is part of a series that will examine the results of the survey and its implications for Cuyahoga County.

More respondents report their financial situation is worse since 2019

Low-income residents of Cuyahoga County shared troubling trends in their experiences. In 2023, fifteen percent more respondents than in 2019 said their financial situation was worse than two years prior. Almost a quarter of respondents in 2023 reported that their financial situation was not just slightly worse but was much worse today. This could reflect an increase in household debt. At the end of 2018, the household debt to income ratio in Cuyahoga County was .759. At the end of 2022, that ratio had risen to .813.

Perceptions to poverty’s causes remained fairly consistent between 2019 and 2023. Almost a third of respondents (31 percent) believe poverty is due to circumstances beyond their control, 17 percent believe it is due to people not doing enough for themselves, and almost half (48 percent) believe it is a mix of both. The largest change in perceptions of the cause of poverty is that three percent more respondents today think poverty is a result of people not doing enough for themselves.

Almost a third of respondents believe poverty is due to circumstances beyond their control.

It is harder to get out of poverty

Fifty-five percent of respondents in 2019 said it was harder to get out of poverty in 2019 than before the Great Recession of 2008. Today, over sixty percent (61 percent) of our 2023 poll respondents believe it is more difficult to rise out of poverty now than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic mobility in the United States has been declining for decades, and it is harder to move from the bottom to the top income quintile in Cuyahoga County than in many other counties in the U.S.

Despite this, respondents in 2023 and 2019 had similar views as to if their financial situation would improve or worsen in one year. Half of respondents predicted optimistically that their financial situation would be slightly or much better in one year. Three percent more of 2023 respondents thought their financial situation would be much worse.

Poverty and race are linked

Due to the systematic disinvestment and exclusion of wealth building opportunities for Black Americans and other communities of color, poverty and race are linked. When exploring the experiences of those living in poverty, it is critical to analyze these experiences with race and ethnicity in mind. Doing so reveals insights like this: white respondents being less pessimistic about their financial futures, with only 38 percent of respondents believing their financial futures will be worse in a year, compared to 49 percent of Hispanic/Latino and 59 percent of Black respondents.

Employment challenges, family demands, and transportation issues keep people in poverty

The composition of respondents’ employment status was similar between the two surveys, with most either working full-time or retired. In 2023, there were more students and fewer respondents who were employed part-time or were permanently disabled who completed the survey.

There was a significant increase in respondents reporting that their current job will not help them “get ahead.”

Those who are working encounter more challenges today. There was a significant increase in respondents reporting that their current job will not help them “get ahead,” which supports the feeling that it is harder to get out of poverty. There were also increases in the percent of respondents who say that it is hard to work and care for family members, that it is hard to get to work because of transportation issues, and that they do not have support at home to work more or find a better job.

Employment challenges by race and ethnicity

Exploring the most reported employment challenges by race/ethnicity reveals some interesting insight into how these challenges are experienced differently. Just under a third of Black respondents reported their job not paying enough to support their families, compared to 25 percent of white respondents, and six percent of Hispanic/Latino respondents.A greater proportion of Black respondents (25 percent) also reported that there is no room for advancement in their employment. However, 31 percent of both white and of Hispanic/Latino respondents stated that their current job wouldn’t help them get ahead, a concern that was reported by a lower percentage of Black respondents (24 percent).

More respondents also reported challenges when looking for jobs today. The greatest challenge was in finding jobs near home. This challenge saw the biggest increase from 2019 to 2023. Other top challenges were finding jobs they are qualified for, finding jobs with hours that work for them, and finding jobs that pay enough to support them and/or their families.

Avoiding the benefit cliff is the main concern

Rounding out the top five challenges is a worry about losing benefits if they earn too much. This is known as a benefit cliff. Benefit cliffs occur when a minor increase in earnings means a family no longer can receive a public benefit which was helping them to feed their families, afford medical care, access quality childcare, or otherwise balance their budget. Fourteen percent of people polled are worried about the benefits cliff, which is three percent more than in 2019. Community Solutions’ President and CEO Emily Campbell has done extensive work around the benefit cliff and how to reduce its effect.

Job search challenges by race and ethnicity

Again, it is insightful to explore these top challenges with finding employment by race/ethnicity, and in doing so some interesting nuances are identified. For example, much greater proportions of Hispanic/Latino respondents reported experiencing these top issues compared to Black and white respondents. Similar proportions of Black and white respondents experienced these challenges with finding employment, though there were slight variations in greater proportions of white respondents reporting struggling to find jobs near their home, and greater proportions of Black respondents reporting struggling to find jobs they’re qualified for.

These and other findings come from an online and phone poll of county residents conducted by Baldwin Wallace University for The Center for Community Solutions. The poll was targeted toward people below or just above the federal poverty line. Eighty-four percent of the 400 respondents reported a household income of less than $30,000. Our mixed-methods approach yielded results with a five percent margin of error at the 95 percent confidence interval.

Read the 2023 Poverty Speaks series

Part 1 focuses on the challenges people living below the poverty line in Cuyahoga County face when trying to move out of poverty.  

Part 2 focuses on the tough choices our neighbors who live in poverty have to make.  

Part 3 focuses on the help our neighbors who live in poverty need and what they get.  

Part 4 focuses on how on nearly every economic measure, people of color fare worse than whites in Cuyahoga County.

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