Ohio has watched its poverty rate decline since the grim aftermath of the recession, when it peaked at 16.4 percent in 2011. Today, the rate is 14 percent. The improvement also belongs in context. Recall that the rate in 2007, or before the deep downturn, was 13.1 percent. In 2001, it was 11.
So the longer trend reveals a disappointing lack of progress, with roughly 190,000 Ohioans living today in severe poverty, or on less than $2 per day. In a report released last week, Wendy Patton of Policy Matters Ohio, a Cleveland-based think tank, outlines how the state has responded in recent years to its persistently high rate of poverty. She reveals the reduced investment in key human services. She offers a guide for Mike DeWine as he puts together his first state budget plan as governor.
Actually, the governor already has pledged to move forward on two fronts that Patton identifies. The first involves state-funded child care. The level of support has declined more than 10 percent the past seven years, a drop of $83 million. The governor wants expand eligibility, a necessary step given, as Patton notes, that just Indiana makes it harder to get such child care.
The governor also wants to ensure the child care includes high-quality early education. As he cited at the Akron Roundtable last week, 80 percent of the children participating today are not in a high-quality education program. Part of the problem is that state payments fall below the market rate. Thus, many of the better programs stay away.
What the governor has in mind won’t be cheap. Yet it promises a big payoff if done right. As Patton explains, an expansion serves two generations, providing children with a stronger foundation for life and allowing their parents in low-paying jobs to keep working.
The second front on which the governor wants to advance involves the home visiting program Help Me Grow. Nurses, social workers and community health workers visit the homes of vulnerable families, starting when the mother is pregnant and continuing into early childhood. The program has proved effective at reducing infant mortality rates, yet today funding is below the level in 2011. The governor has talked about tripling the reach of the program. That’s good. It also means covering just 15 percent of eligible families.
Deserving, too, of the governor’s attention is the Disability Financial Assistance program. It helps some of the poorest Ohioans, single adults waiting for approval of their applications for federal Social Security Disability Insurance. That approval can take 16 months or more. Disability Financial Assistance addresses the gap, providing minimal assistance ($115 per month for a single individual).
As Patton points out, the program has been eliminated the past year. At its recent peak of $34.5 million in 2011, it served as a crucial piece of the safety net.
Another neglected program is Ohio Works First, which provides cash assistance to families with children in deep poverty. Here, the trajectory is the same, the state doing less, though it has roughly $500 million in unused funds. Patton also outlines a shortfall in funding for kinship care, financially challenged relatives stepping up for children whose parents cannot care for them, in many cases due to the opioid epidemic.
Adequate support for these priorities hardly amounts to breaking a two-year state budget approaching $70 billion. Relatively small sums would make a big difference in the lives of poor and vulnerable Ohioans. The funding belongs in a governor’s budget plan.