Local Politics: New census numbers illustrate Columbus poverty problem

Rob Moore
Photo by Chris Russell

No one in Columbus deserves to live in poverty.

We live in a city and a country with enough resources to give everyone at least a meager minimum standard of living. And yet, as a society, we continue to fail to do so.

Last month, the United States Census Bureau came out with its annual poverty report. Let's see how Columbus is stacking up.

About 260,000 people in the Columbus metro area are in poverty, which is defined as a household income of less than $24,000 for a family of four. This means about one in eight Columbus metro residents are in poverty, which is about the same as the federal poverty level.

More still are “near poor.” Those making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($48,000 for a family of four) are considered “low income” and still need support to provide basic family necessities. This group includes more than a quarter of Columbus residents.

Columbus stacks up fairly well compared with other Ohio metros, largely because Ohio is a state with higher poverty levels than the rest of the country. Columbus has a lower poverty rate than Toledo, Youngstown, Cleveland, Canton and Dayton, is about on par with Akron's poverty rate, and is only higher than Cincinnati's 12 percent poverty rate.

So who does poverty hit hardest in Columbus?

The first answer is children. In Columbus, a child under 5 years old is two-and-a-half times more likely to be in poverty than someone over 65. Part of this is due to strong federal anti-poverty policy for the elderly, but part of it is that there are so many poor kids — one in five children under age 5 is in poverty.

Women also have higher poverty rates than men. A woman in Columbus is 19 percent more likely to be poor than a man.

Race is also a factor in Columbus' poverty picture. Black residents are two-and-a-half times more likely to be poor than white residents. Hispanic residents are three times as likely to be poor than those who are white.

Employment and education matter, too. Unemployed residents are five times more likely to be in poverty than those who are employed. High school dropouts are seven times more likely to be in poverty than those with a bachelor's degree or higher.

While these disparities may seem bleak, they can be seen as opportunities, too. Ending disparities in age, gender, race, employment and education would pull 17,000 young children, 24,000 women, 16,000 Hispanic Columbus residents, 50,000 black Columbus residents, 27,000 low-skill workers and 12,000 unemployed Columbus residents out of poverty.

So how do we do this? Hopefully, the Franklin County study on poverty will give policymakers guidance. In the meantime, a good, long-range strategy is to invest in early childhood education. A good short-term strategy is to provide support through cash transfers. In later weeks, I look forward to talking about some of these alternatives.

Poverty is over, if we want it.