Sunday, Sep 23, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns


Region must fight poverty


The Blade's recent series "Sudden Descent" and new academic studies of the rise in concentrated poverty in the Toledo area confirm what we know from our experience: More people in northwest Ohio are being driven into poverty, and there is a growing separation between those who live in poverty and those who do not.

Advocates for Basic Legal Equality and Legal Aid of Western Ohio provide free legal services to low-income people and groups in northwest Ohio. Our attorneys encounter the many reasons people find themselves in poverty.

These include loss of employment, loss of housing through eviction or foreclosure, a lack of meaningful educational opportunities, financial exploitation, domestic violence, and inability to pay medical bills because of a lack of health insurance.

We also see every day the need for strong community partnerships and collaboration to address these problems. Toledo must have thoughtful, forward-thinking planning to provide meaningful and effective solutions.

Greater Toledo is home to a remarkable number of highly effective and efficient nonprofit organizations that do amazing work to address the needs of area residents. Northwest Ohio has housing providers, domestic violence agencies, community development corporations, community- based health-care providers, and other nonprofit organizations that are state and national models of excellence.

Like many other community services, legal services for low-income people are squeezed between two competing realities -- a growing demand for help and less money to support the people who provide that assistance. The situation is growing worse.

Congress is poised to cut funding for the Legal Services Corp., which supports legal-aid law firms across the country, by more than $56 million. That will mean a loss of more than $400,000 in funding for Legal Aid of Western Ohio. And that will mean much less service to people who are getting crushed by this economy and have no other place to turn for legal help.

But diminishing resources cannot deter us from our mission, given the growing needs of northwest Ohio communities. If we are to address the rise in local poverty, we must work together to tackle the long-term issues that trap poor families. Along with the need for more employment opportunities, two other critical issues are the need to develop a public education system that is equal and effective, and the need to increase the supply of safe, affordable housing.

Poverty becomes entrenched when a disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic students, and students with disabilities, continue to be removed from the educational environment and are not served. It is in the interest of everyone in this community to educate our young people and prepare them to become productive members of society.

The Brookings Institution reports that the number of Toledoans who occupy extremely blighted housing grew by 15.3 percent over the past decade. Brookings researchers observe: "Being poor in a very poor neighborhood makes it that much harder to get out of poverty."

Whether Toledo grows more segregated by income and race is up to us. As a community, we can support investment in city neighborhoods by developing safe and affordable housing and promoting local economic development.

We can support policies that give low and moderate-income families access to affordable housing in our more-prosperous neighborhoods and suburbs, allowing them to take advantage of the many great opportunities these communities offer. Our region should provide opportunities to all, not just the few.

The funding crisis that faces legal services is daunting, but it is much less significant in comparison to the plight of families that deal with loss of income and struggle to make it day to day. The challenge is great, but working for long-term, sustainable change will make our community better and stronger.

Legal Aid is up to that challenge and that opportunity, and we invite others to join us in working for a stronger and more just community. Together, we can do the community justice.

Joseph R. Tafelski is executive director of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc. in Toledo.

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