Poverty swells in Portage County

Jeremy Nobile

Number of poor hits ten-year high

Portage County is among several counties in Ohio to see an increase in individuals living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s recently released 2008 American Community Survey.

Twelve percent of Portage residents had incomes below the poverty line last year, and the state’s rate of 13.4 percent is Ohio’s highest recorded value in 10 years. In 2008, poverty for a family of three begins at an income of $17,330, as defined by the federal government.

There were almost 1.5 million people below the poverty line in Ohio last year, with nearly 16,000 of those residents living in Portage County. Some local residents, however, say they didn’t need a survey to explain the rising poverty they witness firsthand.

“There’s kind of a core population that’s here every day, but now there’s lots of newer faces,” said Sister Denise Stiles of the Center of Hope Christian Cupboard on West Main Street. “We’ve seen a large increase in the number of people at our hot meal program.”

Stiles said they serve meals every day and feed nearly 100 people. Many of the new visitors are in their mid-20s. She said the elderly typically visit less frequently than their younger peers.

“Many of them are really proud people,” Stiles said. “They’ve held out as long as they can.”

Juanita Stanford, captain at the Portage County Salvation Army, said she wasn’t surprised by the data reported in the survey.

“We have seen an increase in families, and particularly in the number of first-time families,” Stanford said, adding that she’s witnessed about a 10- to 15-percent increase in frequency of visitors since last year.

“It’s across the plain for everything we offer,” she said of the growing increase in the need for what they provide, “even the youth services. We try to wrap our services around the whole family.”

Stanford said she feels the recession and the difficulty of finding jobs are major factors in the rising level of the poor social class. Many of the citizens she helps still can’t find jobs, and their unemployment funds have dried up.

Clare Stacey, assistant professor of sociology at Kent State, also doesn’t find the statistics that novel, considering the job market in today’s economy and the amount of people who struggle to scrape by.

Individuals living just slightly above the poverty line are increasing, creating a growing near-poor class that is particularly susceptible to pay cuts and layoffs, with members whom Stacey describes as being “precariously perched on the edge of poverty.”

Stacey said times of economic crisis, like those we are experiencing today, tend to show our worth as a country in terms of social programs and government policy.

“We have lots of people suffering,” she said. “I’m not saying we don’t have programs to help the poor, but we’ve got to get people working.”

The most recent statistics are a year behind, and if this trend of growing poverty continues, the 2009 statistics will be even bleaker. Unfortunately, Stacey, who hears students in class fret about getting a job after graduation and how they will afford school, expects conditions to get worse before they get better.

Stiles also said she is concerned the economy isn’t going to improve anytime soon and yearns for a day when the center’s services aren’t needed. In the meantime, all the community can do is help struggling residents for the short term until a long-term resolution for poverty is available.

“In our situation, any level of donation helps take care of more people, but that’s a Band-Aid kind of thing,” she said, explaining that their services only provide temporary relief. “I think it would be great if we didn’t have to be here.”

Contact public affairs reporter Jeremy Nobile at [email protected]