Poverty, pain in ‘The Heart of it All’

Abbey Stirgwolt

Cleveland struggles to break the cycle of urban poverty as it tops poorest cities list

Fifty minutes from Kent State stands one of the nation’s largest cities, a sprawling metropolis nestled comfortably along the Lake Erie shoreline. Within its confines, one in every three of more than 400,000 inhabitants and roughly half of children under the age of 18 live below the poverty line, according to data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Judging from Cleveland’s recent nomination by the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey as the most impoverished big city in the nation, the situation isn’t improving. The city also ranked as the nation’s 12th poorest city last year and the most impoverished big city again in 2003.

Changing scenes, changing cities

Mark Salling, director of Cleveland State’s Northern Ohio Data and Information Service program, leads a team of researchers that analyzes the demographics of the city. Also research director at the Center for Community Solutions in Cleveland, Salling has dealt with issues ranging from social policy to poverty in urban Cleveland.

In his Urban Geography course at Cleveland State, Salling and his students discuss possible problems and solutions to Cleveland’s poverty problem.

There’s no single issue at fault, he said, but Cleveland is one of several “older industrial cities” that hasn’t adjusted to changing times.

“Cleveland is not untypical of cities like itself,” Salling said, pointing out that cities such as Minneapolis have undergone the same types of problems. “It’s not like Cleveland is different.”

A look inside

Heavenly Berkley has lived in Cleveland her whole life — and not in the suburbs, either.

Though Berkley, a sophomore political science major, said she isn’t from the worst section of the city, she admits she isn’t from the best, either — if there is a “best.”

“It’s all about where you’re at,” Berkley said, noting that certain areas, namely downtown and the east side of the city, are a lot more noticeably poor than others.

“It’s trashy. It’s just nasty. The houses are like stuck together. You got trash everywhere, everybody running around,” she said. “It’s bad. Real bad.”

By the numbers

According to Census Bureau data, a family of four at the poverty line brings in about $20,000 in one year, which equates to a daily allowance of $13.60 for each person.

That’ll buy food, probably. But then there’s clothing, transportation, medical expenses — not to mention housing.

It doesn’t help that the poorest areas of town are the places where things cost the most, said Kathryn Wilson, associate professor of economics at Kent State.

“One of the biggest ironies is that people who are poor end up paying the highest prices for things,” she said.

Salling said the job market for those living at the poverty line can change with little notice or regard for individual situations, such as unforeseen illness or transportation problems.

Though most of Cleveland’s impoverished citizens are employed at least part-time, Salling said jobs are extremely unreliable and are usually service-related, such as fast food or retail.

“(Living at the poverty line) means having to take two buses to get to a job that you may lose,” he said. “Some jobs come and go more than others.”

Often families at the poverty line consist of a female with no husband present, Salling said. Day care is frequently needed but seldom affordable. Children are sometimes placed in unsafe or uneducational environments.

“If (Cleveland) is the poorest city, that’s because we don’t have jobs,” Berkley said. “If you don’t know anyone, you’re not getting a job.”

Berkley would know: She spent one month trying to find a job while she lived at home this summer. She ended up securing one through a temp agency – and she considers herself to be among the lucky ones.

“If you get a job, stay where you’re at,” she said. “I don’t know where our jobs went.”

Salling said jobs in Cleveland have followed the people to the suburbs.

“Jobs continue to move out of the city toward the suburbs,” he said. “Jobs and population move sort of together — as the population moves out, jobs move out.”

The suburban scene

Getting a sense of the impoverished urban conditions as compared to the Cleveland suburbs requires only a short trip out of the city, Berkley said.

“When you go toward the suburbs, you can see the upgrades,” she said.

Suburban homes aren’t spectacular, she said, but they have nicer yards, more space and are generally better kept than the inner-city properties. “They don’t take care of Cleveland the way they take care of the suburbs,” she said.

Wilson said the shift of the general population from urban to suburban causes trouble for cities.

“It can be difficult to keep neighborhoods up,” she said, adding that this motivates many to leave while they still can. “Everything’s in the suburbs now.”

Salling said this may stem from Cleveland’s inability to attract new workers.

“Because of the economy suffering, we don’t get migration to the region and to the city,” Salling said.

Since the city cannot attract new working citizens, jobs move out of the city and into the suburbs. This creates a sort of stagnation in the city, as higher-income citizens move out and leave more affordable urban housing to the lower-income portion of the population, Salling said.

Balancing the budget

Berkley believes the city is putting too much money into housing projects and areas like the Flats, trying to make Cleveland look nicer, when finances are needed elsewhere, she said.

“Are your people more important or are your materialistic things (buildings) more important?” she said.

Berkley said that because the city seems to be putting so much money into other things, there’s little left over for education. In her experience, many children don’t even go to school, she said.

Wilson also said Cleveland’s poverty status needs to be addressed in light of the educational issues at stake.

“(Poverty) is going to affect what schools are like,” she said. “More needs to be addressed in schools.”

The winds of change

Though it likely won’t happen overnight, Salling said there is hope for the suffering city.

“I don’t think we need to give up the ship,” he said. “There are new things that need to be thought of.”

A good starting place, he said, is to attract new citizens to Cleveland and encourage those who live there to stay.

“We need to look at how to attract more migrants to the city,” he said, adding that places such as Cleveland Heights have done a good job of retaining citizens by promoting integration, enforcing housing laws and ensuring that property values stay high.

“Public policy programs can have an impact,” he said.

From the bottom up

Berkley is still proud to be a Clevelander.

“Anybody can leave and never turn back, but you gotta make change somewhere,” she said. “If you don’t go back, who’s gonna help?”

After she graduates, Berkley plans to return to Cleveland as a prosecutor so she can give back to her hometown to help Cleveland’s citizens in a positive way, to help them find jobs and to oversee the building of community centers where children can go to be in a safe and productive environment.

Contact public affairs reporter Abbey Stirgwolt at [email protected]