By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
Youngstown has the highest concentrated poverty rate among core cities in the United States’ 100 largest metropolitan areas.
Further, the metropolitan statistical area of which Youngstown is a part — consisting of Mahoning, Trumbull and Mercer counties — is ranked just 16 from the bottom of the poverty barrel.
The No. 1 rating from the Brookings Institute, released today, compares the poor’s living conditions in major cities and whether they also live in an extremely poor neighborhood where the poverty rate exceeds 40 percent.
Roughly half of poor Youngstown residents live in such a neighborhood, 20 percent in an average city, according to a Brookings’ report, called “The Re-Emergence of Concentrated Poverty: Metropolitan Trends in the 2000s.”
At least 2.2 million more Americans now live in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage than at the start of the decade, the report said.
Also, according to U.S. Census data for 2005-09, and in 2010, the latest year for which the Census Bureau has published data, the overall poverty rate in the Youngstown Metropolitan Area jumped from 14.8 percent to 17.2 percent. This means that the rate of concentrated poverty for the metro area likely climbed even higher by 2010, said Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate and lead author of the Brookings report.
Some local officials say they are not surprised by the findings of new research from Brookings.
However, when told of Youngstown’s top ranking, Bill D’Avignon, the city’s Community Development Agency director, said, “That’s kind of a stunner. We’ve turned the corner with job creation. There’s no doubt the statistics show it’s bad [in Youngstown]. But I find it hard to believe we’d be classified as the poorest in the nation.”
Youngstown spends about $5 million a year on providing direct and indirect help to poor, low- and moderate-income people, said D’Avignon.
The indirect assistance includes money it receives from the federal government that goes to nonprofit agencies that help pay for food and utility bills, he said.
Also, the city provides free recreational and educational programs for children as well as money for those unable to make emergency repairs to their homes, and housing down-payment assistance to low- and moderate-income residents, D’Avignon added.
Most of the money spent by the city for these programs comes from the federal government, he said.
But the Rev. David Sherrard, director of the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley, and Tom Finnerty, associate director of Youngstown State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies, say they are not surprised by the city’s rating.
It just further validates the need for the services the Rescue Mission provides, the Rev. Mr. Sherrard said.
“We increased food distribution from one to two days per week in order to handle the increased demand,” he said.
“It’s not unexpected. The city has a long history of extreme poverty. It is exactly where it has been all along,” Finnerty said.
Another thing the Brookings report shows is that poverty is starting to spread, Finnerty said. Poverty follows the same route that the initial spread of population followed.
“People in those poor neighborhoods [in the city] are starting to move to declining neighborhoods in the suburbs,” he said.
The Brookings report shows a similar trend across the country. It stems from unemployment and underemployment, which are also a national problems, Finnerty said.
The city is also seeing people clustered together in living quarters, the associate director said.
“You have a number of people with below-poverty wages living together to survive. That usually occurs in the city’s larger homes. It’s the new commune effect,” Finnerty said.
Law-enforcement officials added that crime rates are tied, in part, to extreme poverty.
“In my opinion, there’s a direct correlation between poverty and crime, particularly theft and many violent crimes,” said Paul J. Gains, Mahoning County prosecutor and former policeman.
“You have a segment of the community that is poor. Children grow up poor. Poor people are less likely to be educated ... and more likely to drop out of school, and those who drop out of school become unable to find gainful employment.
“If we had more jobs here, fewer people would be likely to commit crimes,” Gains said.
The vast majority of defendants in criminal cases here get court-appointed defense lawyers because they are indigent. In 2008, Mahoning County doubled its annual indigent legal defense fund from about $1 million to about $2 million, Gains said.
Judge R. Scott Krichbaum of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court noted that drug and property crimes are most closely linked to poverty.
“Because our poverty is more dramatic in this community than most, our crime rate is higher,” he said.
“People in poverty oftentimes find themselves longing, not only for the finer things in life, but the basic necessities of life and are often frustrated because of their poverty,” the judge added.
“Aggravated robbery is, at least in a town like ours, seldom committed by people of means,” the judge said, adding that restoration of the family unit is a part of the solution.
Addressing the problem is a major undertaking, Finnerty added.
“It’s going to take some major economic upheaval,” Finnerty said. Jobs have been created but they are jobs that pay at the poverty rate or below. For a family of four, $14 per hour is the poverty rate, he said.
Kneebone agrees that solving the poverty problem would take a huge effort which Youngstown and even the whole Youngstown/Pa. Metropolitan Statistical Area may not be able to muster by itself.
The magnitude of the problem is such that it may require combining efforts with other communities in Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, to help the entire region regain a foothold in domestic and global markets, grow employment and educational opportunities, and give people a chance at work, better earnings, and a better quality of life there or elsewhere, Kneebone said.
“People who live in extremely poor areas, be they urban or suburban, shoulder a double burden,” Kneebone said. “Not only do they struggle with their own poverty, but their surrounding communities have fewer job opportunities, lower-performing schools, higher crime rates, and more public-health problems. Being poor in a very poor neighborhood makes it that much harder to get out of poverty.”
Kneebone said the report’s findings make it clear that local, state, and national policies, from land-use and economic development to providing safety-net services, need to be reconsidered from a regional perspective to address the situation.
Contributors: Vindicator staff writers David Skolnick, Peter H. Milliken and Denise Dick