COMPARISON Census reveals county status



The county ranks 54th in percentage of people below the poverty level.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Incomes and the value of homes in Mahoning County went down in 2003 compared with the previous year, the U.S. Census Bureau said, and the percentage of residents living below the poverty level increased.
But on the bright side, the county ranks high on the list of owner-occupied homes, and it's one of the cheapest places to rent among the 233 counties in the nation with a population of at least 250,000.
The U.S. Census released data on a variety of topics including poverty levels, income, housing and education for 2003 on those 233 counties.
Because the analysis was of counties with at least 250,000 residents, Trumbull, Columbiana, Mercer and Lawrence counties weren't included.
Regarding the percentage of people below the poverty level, there were only 53 of the 233 counties with higher levels than Mahoning's 14.3 percent in 2003. In 2002, the county ranked 84th with 12.3 percent of its residents living in poverty.
Nationwide, the poverty level was 12.5 percent in 2003, compared to 12.1 percent in 2002. In Ohio, the poverty level was 12.1 percent in 2003, and 11.9 in 2002. The poverty line for a family of four in 2003 was $18,810.
The percentage of children in Mahoning County living in poverty was 19.3 percent last year, placing it in 68th place. This is the first year the U.S. Census calculated this percentage. Nationwide, the percentage was 17.7, and in Ohio, 17.9 percent last year.
Here's a sign
Michael Iberis, executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank, which distributes food to 170 pantries in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, says he expects the statistics for this year to be even worse than those in 2003.
"The pantries are seeing a 27-percent increase over last year," he said. "We distributed 4.1 million pounds of food last year. The trend is showing it will go up even higher this year. Those showing up are the working poor. People who gave to us three years ago are now coming to get food from the pantries."
The census analysis showed that 20.4 percent of Mahoning County residents at least 25 years of age have at least a bachelor's degree, up from 16.7 percent in 2002. Even with the improvement, the county ranks 204th among the 233 counties in the category. It ranked 218th in 2002.
The news is better when it comes to people age 25 or older with high school diplomas. In 2002, 84 percent of county residents had high school diplomas or equivalencies. The county was ranked 150th in 2002 in that category.
In 2003, the percentage increased to 87, and the county jumped to 110th among the 233 counties in the category.
Also, the 2003 median household income in Mahoning was the eighth-lowest among the 233 counties. The county's median household income was $32,001 compared to $41,350 in Ohio, and $43,300 nationwide. Mahoning's median household income in 2002 was $34,106.
Regional view
Jay Williams, director of Youngstown's community development agency, said the numbers paint a bleak picture of the county.
"The region will not improve until we look at a regional approach to mitigate these statistics," he said. "We can't continue to have these deplorable rankings."
While Youngstown isn't broken out as part of the county's analysis by the census bureau, Williams freely admits the city is at the core of most of the negative results.
"I'm not asking the suburbs to save the city, but we should try a different approach," he said. "Someone's shiny fiefdom in the suburbs is lost when you look at the entire county."
Matthew Stefanak, commissioner of the county's health department, said people living in poverty have little to no money for medical services.
"The levels of education and wealth are important predictors of the health of the people in a county," he said. "It's not encouraging. We're going to see continued high rates of poverty, which leads to poor health."
A large factor in these figures is the lack of sufficient job growth in higher-salaried professions, said Jim Shanahan, senior research associate at Youngstown State University's Center for Urban and Regional Studies.
"We haven't had strong growth in those higher-paid professions," he said. "It's the biggest reason we don't move forward and why we are near the bottom in several categories."
Shanahan says the increase in those with at least a bachelor's degree in Mahoning County is a good sign that the area is making some progress.
"At least we're not going backward," he said.
skolnick@vindy.com

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