‘Ohio is in definitely one of the worst economic conditions in the country’

Katie Phillips

Pockets appear emptier for some Portage County residents, as poverty rates soared from 9 percent in the year 2000 to a high of approximately 15 percent to 20 percent at present time, according to experts at Portage County Department of Job and Family Services.

National economic conditions along with low wages and unemployment are primary factors causing new poor in Portage County. Ohio’s rate of employment rose to nearly 6 percent, states the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We believe there are probably 30,000 people in the working poor percentage level or lower at this time,” said Charlene Badger, communications officer at Portage County Department of Job and Family Services. “Ohio is in definitely one of the worst economic conditions in the country.”

U.S. Census Bureau data released in 1999 confirms that Ohio trails the national average at 12.5 percent of individuals living in poverty. While experts estimate Portage County’s overall rate of poverty at 15 percent to 20 percent, the most recent Census Bureau rate of Kent residents living below poverty is 25.2 percent.

“It’s not like walking down Washington, D.C. and seeing homeless people,” said David Shea, executive director of Community Action Council of Portage County, Inc. “Portage County is rural, and you don’t see it. You don’t see visible signs of it, but it’s here.”

News of the area’s increasing percentages follows recent statistics from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey claiming Cleveland’s poverty rates significantly improved, or had fewer in poverty compared with other cities.

Though the survey’s margin of error leaves some experts skeptical of the surge in optimistic numbers considering slight growth and job opportunities in the Northeast region, Cleveland cast last year’s title as the nation’s poorest city, plunging to number 12 for this year.

“We don’t think the Cleveland figures are accurate,” Badger said. “We can’t figure out how they came to that conclusion. In reality, some of those statistics aren’t reflecting what’s really out there.”

But while skeptics question whether or not Cleveland’s one-year-reign as the poorest city is really over, Portage County remains in the midst of poverty problems, Badger said.

Documentation that may show a drop in numbers of people needing assistance programs is only due to losing track of the poor after their fixed-time period on the program is up.

“Some programs you can only stay on for a certain amount of time, like nine months of the year,” Badger said. “They can’t participate in the program anymore, and they can’t be counted anymore. They’re in worse condition than before because now, they can’t even get our help.”

Area shelters note a surge of demand in their increased client base as well.

There has been a 30 percent to 40 percent increase in clients from the past winter to present time at The Center of Hope’s Christian Cupboard, one of Kent’s emergency food pantries, said Daryl Fullum, manager of The Center of Hope.

Volunteer workers now express concern about so many requests from those in need.

“We’re worried about keeping the shelves stocked,” Fullum said. “We’re getting real concerned about the food resource right now. We’re really struggling.”

United Way’s 211 Portage information and referral help line reveals the same dilemma.

Almost 14,000 people called with requests for basic needs, including clothes and employment information in the past year alone, said Steve Kleiber, president and CEO of United Way of Portage County.

More than 27,000 hot meals were served in a one-year-time span at The Lord’s Pantry, an affiliate of Kent Social Services.

Demands continue to rise in programs across the county.

“We’re very busy now, and that’s not good because there are a lot of people hurting,” Shea said. “I would like nothing more than to have nothing to do.”

Contact public affairs reporter Katie Phillips at [email protected].