What The Jobs Report Doesn’t Tell You: Poverty In Southeast Ohio

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As the nation emerges from the recession, people look to several measures to determine just how far we have come back and how far we have to go. Economic recovery can become a matter of perspective.

The standard measures for progress are job growth and unemployment rate, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story. A low unemployment rate or an increase in job creation does not mean everyone is much better off.

In Ohio, the state set the creation of 350,000 private-sector jobs as an economic milestone. This was the number of private-sector jobs lost since the state began measuring the recession.

Since Gov. John Kasich took office, Ohio has added 352,000 private-sector jobs as of the January jobs report, and Ohio’s unemployment rate still sits below the national average.

“We are fully recovered from that downturn of 350,000 jobs lost,” Kasich said at a press conference on March 6. “And what a great message that sends to Ohio.”

However, the newest poverty numbers from the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies paint a different picture.

Southeast Ohio has not felt the recovery the statewide jobs report suggests. In fact, the situation in Ohio’s Appalachian region may have gotten worse.

Athens County has the highest poverty rate in the state, according to the latest data from 2012. Nearly one-third of Athens’ population lived in poverty in that year.

The statewide poverty rate is 16.3 percent. Twenty-one of Ohio’s 28 Appalachian counties have higher rates, many of them far higher. Ten counties in the region have poverty rates higher than 20 percent.

State lawmakers say while government officials like to tout low statewide unemployment rates and job increases, those are only small pieces to a much larger puzzle.

The state has recovered jobs lost during the recession in the private sector, but the public sector has taken a hard hit. Many parts of Southeast Ohio rely on jobs in areas such as local government and public education, cuts to which have left deep scars in the region.

“As much as Gov. Kasich wants to talk about some kind of great success story, his policies cut spending on local services by 50 percent in his first budget,” said State Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany.

For example, the state closed an ODJFS call center located in The Plains in 2013 as part of a consolidation effort. Forty-seven local employees worked at the center.

During the same period Ohio met the 350,000-job threshold in the private sector, it lost 42,700 government jobs.

“People in our community then are either looking for a different job or they’re having to commute over an hour each way to be able to keep their job they had previously,” Phillips said.

“A job doesn’t mean a living anymore.”

Despite loss of public jobs, Ohio has seen overall growth and a sinking unemployment rate in recent years. However, some complain about the quality of jobs added to the state’s economy.

Education levels are far lower in Southeast Ohio, making it more difficult to find a living-wage job. The majority of Southeast Ohio counties have lower percentages of people with a high school education than the rest of Ohio, according to the U.S. census. The percentage of people with a bachelor’s degree in Appalachian Ohio lags even further behind the rest of the state.


Of the 35 fastest-growing jobs in Ohio, only eight do not require higher education or advanced certification, according to ODJFS.

The department reported nearly 7,000 annual openings for those eight jobs. The average wage for these openings is just $10.87 an hour.

If a person works 40 hours a week at $10.87 an hour every week of the year, he would make less than $23,000 annually before taxes. If he happened to live alone, he would qualify for food bank assistance.

Many of these jobs are assistance- or service-based, which do not provide that kind of consistency. Director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks Lisa Hamler-Fugitt said one unanticipated expense could put a person with this type of job out of work. She calls it the “tyranny of the moment.”

“It could be a flat tire. It could be a broken down car,” Hamler-Fugitt said in a January interview. “It could be a sick child that keeps you away from work and you end up losing your job.”

State Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, says the state has not placed emphasis on living wages, job training and workforce development to keep people in good jobs, especially in Southeast Ohio.

“I think the key here is that: it’s living-wage jobs,” Gentile said, “creating living-wage jobs, creating new jobs that allow families to provide for their children, to save for college or higher education.”

What all these numbers mean is, yes, the economy is growing, but that growth is limited in scope. Ohio has added many low-wage service jobs, but nine out of 10 jobs lost during the recession were medium- or high-paying, according to the Ohio Poverty Law Center.

“Poverty is complex,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “And a job doesn’t mean a living anymore.”

“We can grow jobs … but we have to have the basics first.”

Kasich says the technology sector and business in things like cloud computing and data analytics are “where it’s at.”

But poor broadband and telecommunications infrastructure hamstrings Southeast Ohio’s technological capabilities.

“I’ve spoken to some business owners who are trying to conduct business through their websites and they have a dial-up connection,” Phillips said. “So you can’t even imagine the frustration they’ve described.”

Phillips said establishing new businesses is important, but helping sustain businesses already in existence should be just as high a priority.

Up-to-date infrastructure with wide availability of high-speed internet would help Southeast Ohio businesses take part in the global economy, Phillips said.

There has been little done to improve that infrastructure by the state in recent years, which hinders the region’s ability to capitalize on the tech boom.

“Something that state leaders need to understand in Columbus [is] that when they’re talking about Cleveland and Columbus and Cincinnati and attracting those [tech] jobs, that we often are not blessed with the same infrastructure that they have,” Gentile said. “So we need to build it. And if we build it … we can grow jobs, we can attract that kind of high-tech investment, but we have to have the basics first.”

“Fighting for our fair share.”

Gentile said poverty and high unemployment is nothing new to the region and that he is accustomed to “fighting for our fair share.”

What makes these current rates different is the fact many of them have gone up during a time of purported recovery.

Athens County’s poverty rate increased 8.5 percent from 2010 to 2012. Hocking County increased 3.9 percent. Gallia, Muskingum, Noble, Perry, Pickaway, Ross, Scioto, Vinton and Washington counties all increased as well.

Lawmakers say this results from insufficient funding to the region. Gentile said low investment in Southeast Ohio is undeserved.

“We’re making meaningful contributions, I think, to the overall economic climate in the state,” he said. “Our workers, our families, our communities, in my judgment, are equally deserving of getting some of those state dollars back.”

For now, Southeast Ohio lawmakers are picking apart Kasich’s proposed budget to find ways to direct funds to the region.

As a member of the House Finance Committee, Phillips has focused on the governor’s controversial education funding formula, which claims to funnel more state dollars to schools less able to raise funds themselves.

However, many rural school districts including Southern Local Schools, Federal Hocking and Trimble are all slated to receive cuts. Gentile said more than 65 percent of schools in his district, which includes 10 counties, would receive cuts under the governor’s formula.

As mentioned, education is hugely important in finding a good job. Phillips said the problem starts with access.

“Our kids have to have access to the same quality of education that kids in the other part of the state have if they’re going to be able to stay in the area, help create jobs in the area and help improve the situation,” Phillips said.

The budget process is still fairly young. Gentile said to expect amendments to the budget out of his camp when it reaches the Senate.

“About the best place in America”

There are also private efforts to grow Ohio’s Appalachian economy.

The Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth, or “APEG,” launched in 2012, is the southeastern regional arm of JobsOhio, a nonprofit corporation that aims to drive economic growth in the state.

APEG CEO John Molinaro said before APEG, Southeast Ohio did not even have an economic development organization.

Directing attention and funds away from the region has kept it lagging behind and it stems partly from low population density, he said. Ohio’s Appalachian region accounts for more than one-third of the state’s land mass, but only about 10 percent of the population.

“We just don’t have the population base or the large metro core that allows for the same kind of economic development operation you might have in Cleveland, Columbus or Cincinnati,” Molinaro said.

But just as the jobs report does not illustrate a complete picture in Southeast Ohio, the poverty report does not either.

Southeast Ohio does have opportunities for growth. Molinaro said Ohio’s Appalachian region is “about the best place in America” for manufacturing.

One in seven people in APEG’s region works in manufacturing, compared to one in 10 in the state. Ohio’s rate is also third highest in the nation. Molinaro said Southeast Ohio’s strong manufacturing workforce is underutilized.

It is also underpriced, he said. Southeast Ohio’s manufacturing workers make just $0.79 for every dollar made by manufacturing workers in the rest of Ohio and the surrounding states.

“We’re not even close to the end of our mission.”

So if measuring sheerly by the number 350,000, Kasich is right – Ohio has fully recovered from the recession. But the governor acknowledged there is still a long way to go.

“We’re not even close to the end of our mission,” Kasich said.

The question becomes how Southeast Ohio will fit into that mission.

For months starting with his inaugural address, Kasich has urged efficiency and personal responsibility. Phillips said he should look to Southeast Ohio to see how it’s done.

“When you look at the whole idea of shared services and how to be more efficient and work together across jurisdictions,” she said, “we’ve got folks who do that every day, who just try to get things done, how to meet the need and take care of one another.”