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Valley struggles with kids in poverty

Poverty is often a cycle, an oppressive cloud that hangs over generations, expanded by a community’s inability to offer living-wage jobs, affordable housing and comprehensive health care.

Experts say society’s youngest often carry the mental trauma that comes with not knowing if their home will be heated in the winter or their bellies full in the summer.

When poverty cycles by generations, that means it takes longer for a society to address the poverty in their communities, and more children are likely to grow up to have children living in poverty as well.

While the impact of living at or below the poverty level is felt by children all around the globe and all around the country, the Mahoning Valley is affected significantly, according to newly issued data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Family Survey. The data collected is from 2019, before COVID-19 hit. The most recent data includes only cities with 65,000 people or more, but the survey contains data from 2018 on smaller cities.

Many people living in poverty work, but their wages are not enough to lift themselves and their children out of poverty, said Emily Campbell, associate director and senior fellow, Williamson Family Fellow for Applied Research at the Center for Community Solutions, Cleveland. But policies could turn the numbers around, she said.

The obvious solution?

“Simply put, families with children need more money,” Campbell said.

Policies that better help unemployed people find jobs, offer training in higher-paying occupations, increase the minimum wage and increase the hours of part-time workers would help raise income and lift people, and their children, out of poverty, Campbell said.

“Community Solutions’ analysis shows that someone working full time for the full year making Ohio’s minimum wage of $8.70 per hour would earn less than the poverty threshold for a family of three. The new data shows that there are thousands of people in communities across Northeast Ohio who worked full time last year and were still living in poverty,” she said.

That means that efforts to reduce child poverty must include improving the entire family’s economic circumstances, she said.

THE DATA

In the United States, the child poverty rate is 16.8 percent, and in Ohio it is 18.4, according to the data.

In Youngstown, 56.6 percent of children live in poverty, according to 2019 data. The numbers are not much better in Warren, where 55.2 percent of children live in poverty, according to 2018 data. The percent in Youngstown is down from 2018 data, when 57.5 percent of children lived in poverty.

The poverty rate for children in Youngstown is second only to Daytona Beach, Fla., where 57.6 percent of children live in poverty, according to an analysis from Cleveland.com on cities the survey addressed of 65,000 people or more. The percent of children in poverty increases the younger the child is in Youngstown, where 67.4 percent of children under 5 are living in poverty.

The analysis from The Center for Community Solutions states Youngstown is second only to Pharr City, Texas, when it comes to overall poverty rates in cities over 60,000, Campbell said.

“It’s clear that (Youngstown) is a high-poverty city,” she said.

The poverty line is set at $25,926 for a two-parent family of four, and $20,598 for a single parent with two children. The rate the 2020 threshold for a family of three is $21,720, Campbell said.

In Trumbull County as a whole, 28.8 percent of kids live in poverty — not much more than Mahoning County as a whole, where 28 percent of kids live in poverty.

In both counties, men earn more than women by more than $10,000 per year. The median income is $41,000 in Trumbull County, but women make a median income of only $35,000, compared to the $46,000 per year men make, according to the census data. In Mahoning County, the median income is $42,000, but women make only $35,500 per year, compared to the $48,500 men make.

About 17.5 percent of people in both counties are in poverty. The poverty rate of people 65 and older is 9 percent in Mahoning County and 8 percent in Trumbull County. About 17 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 64 in both counties live in poverty.

In Warren, about 36 percent of people live in poverty, while in Youngstown it’s 38 percent. Fourteen percent of people over 65 are in poverty in Warren, while 15 percent are in Youngstown. About 34 percent of people between 18 and 64 in Warren live in poverty and in Youngstown, 39 percent.

THE TRAUMA OF POVERTY

“One of the biggest issues in poverty, generational poverty, is that it makes people live in constant survival mode,” Guy Burney, director of Youngstown’s Community Initiative to Reduce Violence, said.

When someone is in constant survival mode, they can’t concentrate on their “future story” because they are always dealing with what is right in front of them, Burney said.

When society doesn’t offer the resources to turn things around, poverty cycles through those generations, said Tim Schaffner, executive director of Trumbull County Children Services.

People who did not grow up in “abject poverty” do not know what it is like to wonder if they will have a meal before bed or be warm in the winter, Schaffner said.

“Kids are aware when their parents are struggling and the heat goes off. It creates a different worldview. When you wonder why more kids from poor homes don’t go to college, it is because college hasn’t been a part of their reality, and that is one of the ways the cycle of poverty is perpetuated,” Schaffner said.

When a kid doesn’t have to worry about basic needs being met, they are more able as children and adults to make the moves that can build a different future, Schaffner said.

Research has confirmed that adverse childhood experiences and trauma impacts a child’s neurological development and coping skills, Schaffner said.

“Their neurological development is affected and the coping skills they develop to help them stay alive, but the skills don’t translate into success in other settings. So it becomes extra important for us to identify the kids that could use early intervention. Trauma can have long-term effects on a child,” Schaffner said.

It can lead to higher rates of obesity, diabetes and substance use as an adult, including smoking, drinking and excessive alcohol use, said April Caraway, executive director of the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board.

“One thing we have learned from trauma-informed care is that a lot of people that have an addiction also have unresolved childhood trauma, and that is why we are working on becoming a trauma-informed community,” Duane Piccirilli, executive director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board, said. “We are asking, ‘What happened to you?’, instead of, ‘What is wrong with you?'”

If the trauma isn’t addressed when a child is young, it impacts them as adults, he said.

That is why mental health and recovery boards work with social service agencies to connect families to services, Caraway said.

“We know that childhood trauma can affect all of us throughout our lives. Poverty and the lack of adequate food and health care that often is a part of living in poverty can and does affect people for the rest of their lives,” she said.

EDUCATION

Education is one of the only ways to raise children out of poverty, Justin Jennings, CEO of Youngstown City Schools, said.

“I have personal knowledge of growing up in poverty,” he said. “I grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., similar to Youngstown, though bigger, an old mill town, an old factory town.”

The factories closed and poverty rates went up, Jennings said, but the community there has started to reinvent itself.

“But Youngstown is not reinventing itself; it is not bringing in jobs with opportunities. They come to the suburbs, but not to the city,” Jennings said.

A good education with wraparound services can make a difference in a kid’s life, he said.

“Education is huge. If not for my education, I would probably still be in poverty,” Jennings said.

But the trauma of living in poverty can affect educational attainment, Caraway said.

“We know that adverse childhood experiences, including poverty, are linked to reduced school success and graduation rates, higher rates of unemployment, and continuation in the cycle of poverty. According to the research, when compared to those without (childhood trauma) exposure, adults with four or more (childhood trauma indicators) were found to be 2.3 times more likely to have not completed high school, 2.3 times more likely to be unemployed and 1.6 times more likely to live in a household reporting poverty,” Caraway said.

To help intervene, Youngstown schools offer meals and social services like access to social workers and counselors, along with health services, Jennings said.

“Poverty affects a lot of areas of a person’s life. That is why we focus on health and welfare. There is no pediatrician in the city limits of Youngstown. So offering health services is one thing we can do. It is disparaging: 41 percent of new cases of coronavirus are in African-American children, but they only make up 18 percent of the population. A lack of health care and the amount of incarceration, a lack of jobs — those are all factors,” Jennings said.

Another problem is how schools are funded, Jennings said.

When school funding is based on property taxes, the areas with lower property values — places like Youngstown where poverty is high — don’t have the same resources as districts with higher property values, Jennings said.

“It is absolutely arbitrary and not fair at all for the kids. A house worth $17,000 in Youngstown is $170,000 in Canfield, so the kids lose out, and the cycle continues,” he said.

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