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Published: Monday, 9/26/2011

A poverty of choices

New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau confirm what people here already know: More people in the Toledo area are living in poverty.

But the statistics also put the faces of the poor in greater focus. A growing number of formerly middle-class households are losing their homes and depending on public assistance.

According to the census’ American Community Survey, 19.4 percent of people in Lucas County lived below the federal poverty line — $21,970 for a family of four — in 2010. That was up from 18.4 percent in 2009 and well above the 16.7 percent of county residents who lived in poverty in 2007.

In Toledo, 25.8 percent of residents lived in poverty in 2010, up from 23.8 percent in 2009 and 22.6 percent in 2007. Women (27.4 percent), children under 18 (35.8 percent), African-Americans (41.8 percent), and anyone without a high school diploma (41 percent) were even more likely to be poor.

In 2007, the median family income in Lucas County was more than $47,045; in Toledo, it was $36,771. By 2010, median income had dropped to $38,773 in the county and $31,708 in the city. Both figures were adjusted for inflation.

The earnings of 40 percent of people in Lucas County and more than half of Toledoans last year were at or below self-sufficiency — 200 percent of the poverty line. That’s the level above which the government estimates people can survive without any assistance.

The number of area residents who receive food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, and other forms of government aid has increased dramatically in recent years, even in the largely middle-class suburbs. Bill Kitson, CEO of United Way of Greater Toledo, says calls to his agency from Toledoans who need help have risen 132 percent since 2007. But calls from Maumee, Oregon, and Perrysburg rose even faster.

Between 2000 and 2009, tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs that were the backbone of the local economy moved elsewhere or were eliminated. This contraction was enhanced by the recession that began in 2008, complicated by the housing crash, and compounded by cutbacks in federal and state aid.

The same situation is playing out across the country. The 46.2 million Americans living below the poverty line are the most in the 52 years the government has been publishing the statistics. The 11.8 percent rate of suburban poverty is the highest in more than four decades.

The solution, as Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said in an ABC News interview last week, is to build consumer demand so that business owners, instead of sitting on their profits and imposing ever-greater work loads on fewer employees, will hire more people.

Reducing corporate tax rates that many big employers don’t pay won’t increase demand. Weakening regulations that protect consumers, workers, and the environment may increase corporate profits, but won’t create customers.

Extending and expanding payroll tax breaks for workers and businesses, as President Obama advocates, would help. Investing in programs to create and save jobs could prime the demand pump.

Accepting the further erosion of the middle class in Toledo, in Lucas County, and across the nation is no alternative.



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