Addressing poverty must be the chief priority of city government. Every aspect of city services and city policies should operate with this challenge in mind.
One of the most common statements about Cleveland is that we have some of the worst poverty measures in the country. Having said this, significant context demonstrates that poverty is widespread in communities across the country (and the world), in urban and rural settings – and that national, state and local strategies are needed to address its pathologies.
Economic statistics alone do not capture the core elements of poverty – or how it manifests itself in a city like Cleveland. Data are sometimes cited that the percentage of families living in poverty has increased or decreased, or that policies or related economic conditions have contributed to these changes.
However, the truth is that any progress in reducing poverty in recent decades has been modest and lacking in scale. More accurately, aspects of poverty have become a bigger problem in recent decades.
The data on “concentrated poverty” is one of the most meaningful measures of the problem. Communities that have multiple neighborhoods with a high percentage of very low-income residents face some of the deepest challenges.
When a large number of families with major economic challenges are living in the same neighborhood, the barriers and needs multiply and create a more complex and urgent issue. A Brookings Institution report from November 2020 notes the following crucial facts and disturbing implications:
The United States has experienced sharp increases in urban poverty over the last 40 years. The number of neighborhoods where 30% or more of residents live in poverty doubled between 1980 and 2010. Almost 67% of high-poverty neighborhoods in 1980 are still very poor almost 40 years later.
Persistent poverty damages long term outcomes for children. The connection between poverty and place matters for families and particularly for their children.
The impact of poverty on families varies significantly based on race. Approximately 1 in 4 Black Americans are in high-poverty neighborhoods – compared to 1 in 6 Hispanic Americans – and compared to 1 in 13 white Americans. Brookings cites Raj Chetty, who found in a 2018 study that Black boys have lower incomes in adulthood than white boys in 99% of census tracts.
Why Poverty Matters
Poverty should not be an academic discussion – or be seen merely as an unfortunate sidelight to everyday life. The existence of highly concentrated, very low-income families in Cleveland directly impacts our ability to be successful as a city.
While I may see the issue more as a social worker – that we have a duty to provide support for underserved residents and improve the quality of their lives – our failure to address poverty directly impacts our economic success as a community and region.
When bond-rating agencies evaluate local government investments, they take many factors into account – including the amount of debt, quality of financial management, and other internal factors. But the economic status of the constituency – median income, tax base, related indicators – plays a larger, if not the largest role.
The ability to make future investments in our infrastructure and our community are dependent on addressing issues of poverty. Further, a high level of poverty also adversely impacts our ability to attract and retain businesses and jobs in Greater Cleveland.
Lack of an educated and economically viable population becomes a vicious circle of disinvestment and economic decline. Any community stakeholder not aware of this fact and not focused on addressing it is not serious about what it takes to create a successful city.
My Poverty Agenda
I have tried to define my work in public service as more action than words. Vague goals or slogans about poverty do not make a difference. But city government can be aggressive, thoughtful and concrete in addressing issues of poverty.
These are the steps I will take to address poverty if elected Mayor of Cleveland:
- Advocacy Strategy for State and Federal Government Policy: Policy and budget decisions made at the state and federal level play a major role in addressing issues of poverty. City government should have a strategic and aggressive advocacy strategy to support policy changes that benefit low-income Clevelanders.
- Collaboration with County Government and Other Community Stakeholders to Address Issues of Poverty: County government serves over 400,000 County residents – many of whom are Clevelanders – in administering programs such as SNAP, Medicaid, Child Care, Child Support and many others. The City and County have collaborated to serve people experiencing homelessness – but have never worked in tandem to directly address broader issues of poverty. The creation of a Greater Cleveland Poverty Coalition – led by city government provides a vehicle for a community-wide focus and response to the issue.
- Choose Priority Areas to Fight Poverty: Vague expressions of concern and awareness of the issue is not a meaningful response to the problem. City government should employ the Poverty Coalition to tackle the highest priority problems and set goals and measure impact in the following areas:
- Affordable Housing: Creation of the Affordable Housing Commission (see “Housing Instability” issue paper) will allow for goals to be set in providing more affordable housing in Cleveland.
- Workforce Development: Many organizations are working hard to address this issue. However, City government must make it another Poverty Coalition priority – by measuring annual progress to support training and readiness for Clevelanders to fill open positions throughout our community, and improve their economic prospects.
- Universal Pre-Kindergarten: City government must take up the mantle of encouraging expansion of this important program – which greatly improves outcomes for children in underserved neighborhoods.
- Public Health Priorities: Many Clevelanders face worse health outcomes because of social determinants of health that disproportionately affect poor families. Work to address infant mortality, lead poisoning and other public health issues is good – but a detailed strategy with measurable outcomes is a must for City government.
- Economic Opportunity and Community Development: The City has invested and made progress in poor neighborhoods – but citywide plans need a timetable and outcome metrics to have a chance at being successful in every neighborhood, particularly in light of new American Rescue Plan funds being available.
Changing the Dynamic
There are many other areas of potential focus. But the most important point is to develop a collaborative strategy, choose priorities and measure outcomes. Without goals and a way to determine if progress is being made to accomplish them, poverty will continue to be a conversation topic and not an action item on the city agenda.
As Mayor, I intend to change that dynamic.