Dayton has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation

Dayton saw its poverty rate increase in 2019 for the first time in years, which bucked the national trend and contributed to the Gem City having one of the highest poverty rates in the nation among mid- to large-sized cities.

Nearly 30% of Dayton residents lived in poverty, which is a higher rate than all but three other U.S. cities that have a population of at least 100,000 residents, according to this newspaper’s analysis of new data from the Census' American Community Survey.

Massive numbers of Daytonians and Ohioans have lost their jobs this year because of the pandemic, and some researchers and advocacy groups fear widespread unemployment and other economic hardship could lead to a sharp increase in destitute families.

“Many, many thousands more people are unemployed across Ohio than when this data was collected ― it was collected at a time of record low unemployment and a real booming economy, and yet there were already so many families struggling in our communities," said Emily Campbell, associate director of the Center for Community Solutions, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Cleveland.

Dayton’s official poverty rate saw a slight uptick last year, rising to 29.6%, up from 29.4% in 2018, according to recently released Census data. However, the small increase was well within the survey’s margin of error.

Previously, the share of Dayton residents in poverty decreased for four consecutive years, falling from 36.9% in 2014. The national poverty rate fell to 10.5% in 2019, which was the fifth consecutive year of declines.

The federal poverty guidelines for 2019 was a household income below $25,750 for a family of four.

With a poverty rate of 31.3%, Syracuse is the poverty capital of U.S. cities with at least 100,000 residents.

Cleveland (pop. 381,000) had the second highest rate of 30.8%, and Detroit was next with a rate of 30.6%.

Dayton did not trail far behind.

Some smaller U.S. cities have higher rates, including Youngstown (pop. 65,470; 38.1% rate) and Canton (pop. 70,450; 31.9% rate). But Dayton is much larger (pop. 140,400).

Demographic characteristics

An estimated 37,700 people in Dayton have incomes below the federal poverty level, including more than 13,230 residents under the age of 18, according to the survey data. The Census says it did not determine the poverty status of all of the city’s residents.

In Dayton, about 23.5% of white residents and 30.9% of Black residents are poor. More than half of Hispanic residents fall into this category.

More than 42% of residents without a high school degree are poor, compared to less than 11% with a bachelor’s degree or higher credentials.

More than half of unemployed residents live in poverty, compared to 15.5% of working residents.

However, there are nearly 2.5 times as many poor residents who are working as there are poor people who are unemployed.

What’s going on

Ohio has many high-poverty cities, and one reason for this is the state and its urban areas have not recovered as fully from the Great Recession as other places, said Campbell, with the Center for Community Solutions.

Wages in Ohio tend to be lower than other states, she said, and even considering the Buckeye State’s cheaper living costs, it still doesn’t stack up well compared to its peers.

This survey data is from 2019, when there was historically low unemployment and a thriving economy, which is concerning because economic conditions this year have severely deteriorated because of COVID-19, Campbell said.

Job and income losses could push more people into poverty and desperate circumstances, Campbell said.

Since the start of the outbreak, food banks have been swamped, unemployment claims have soared to record levels and many people have fallen behind on their rent and face eviction.

Unemployment skyrocketed in Dayton early in the pandemic, and though it has declined for three straight months, it remains elevated at 12.6%. Dayton’s unemployment rate decreased between 2011 and 2019, dropping to 5.1% last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are resources available to help poor and struggling residents.

Miami Valley Community Action Partnership in Dayton was awarded $5 million in federal funds to offer rental assistance to help prevent evictions in Montgomery County.

Montgomery County is recruiting for several local employers and encourages residents to reach out if they need help finding work by visiting or calling (937) 225-5627, said Garth McLean, Montgomery County’s interim director of workforce development.

“Our staff follows up with everyone, and we’ll work one-on-one with you to find a job,” he said.

Other efforts to combat poverty

The city of Dayton has worked on a variety of programs and initiatives to try to reduce poverty or its impact on residents.

The city a few years ago successfully passed an income tax hike that in part would help fund universal pre-school for 4-year-olds, with the stated goal of helping prepare children for lifelong learning.

Mayor Nan Whaley has said that today’s children are tomorrow’s workforce, and supporters say high-quality pre-kindergarten can improve people’s lifetime earnings and reduce the chances they will live in poverty.

More recently, using federal CARES Act funding, the city has proposed offering free high-speed wireless internet to some low-income neighborhoods in northwest Dayton to help residents access online services, most notably telemedicine options.

A lack of jobs that pay a living wage is a valid and well-known factor in poverty, but other issues include poor infrastructure, limited transportation options, increasing daily living costs and changing family structures, said Philip Cole, executive director of the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies.

Infrastructure is the backbone of society, but the poorest areas tend to have neglected or inadequate infrastructure, and this isn’t just about roads and bridges, but also affordable, accessible internet, he said.

Information is changing quickly, and broadband is a necessity to remain educated and keep learning and avoid being on the wrong side of the digital divide, he said.

“We believe (internet) should be available like any utility — electricity, gas, water, etc.,” he said. “It must be available and affordable.”

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