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Published: Sunday, 2/14/2010

Hard times tighten vise on the poor; U.S. ranks Toledo as nation's 8th-most impoverished

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

First in an occasional series

One in four. What does it mean?

Every dollar has four quarters. So does every football game.

Every gallon of milk and every gallon of gasoline has four quarts.

But try to explain what it means to live in a city such as Toledo, where one of every four people now lives below the poverty line.

Homeless advocate Gary Bond, 58, says he believes Toledo's percentage of residents below the poverty line is even higher than the official 24.7 percent. Homeless advocate Gary Bond, 58, says he believes Toledo's percentage of residents below the poverty line is even higher than the official 24.7 percent.
THE BLADE/LORI KING Enlarge | Buy This Photo

There is no tidy way to package and deliver the answer.

The latest U.S. Census Bureau poverty statistics rank Toledo the nation's eighth most impoverished city, with 24.7 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. That's nearly twice the national poverty rate of 13.2 percent.

Many believe the situation is worse now locally and nationally, given that those Census figures were based on late 2008 data. America's economic crisis worsened during the first half of 2009.

Records show the Toledo area's homeless population may have jumped 21 percent in 2009 from the number in 2008.

Toledo officials are trying to dig the city out of a budget deficit that has grown to $48.2 million and could get worse as the city struggles with job losses and a decreasing tax base.

The United Way of Greater Toledo fielded 48,000 requests for assistance on its 211 hot line between July and January.

Thousands came from people who had never contacted the agency previously, said Jane Moore, the agency's executive vice president.

More than half of the babies born in Lucas County today begin their lives on Medicaid. Ninety thousand county residents get some sort of assistance at any given time, according to Deb Ortiz-Flores, executive director of the Lucas County Department of Job & Family Services.

Cherry Street Mission Ministries, one of the city's oldest and largest shelters, served 120 meals and accommodated 67 homeless men and women a day in 2003.

In January, that figure ballooned to 786 meals and an average of 248 men and women receiving shelter. Seventy-eight of them were women, one of the fastest-growing segments of the homeless population and a poverty indicator that service providers track closely.

"Women have always been the hidden homeless demographic," explained Dan Rogers, Cherry Street's president and chief executive officer. Landlords typically are far more reluctant to throw women and children out on the street than to oust men, he said.

The mission moves the conference table out of its conference room to squeeze in more people when necessary.

"We'll simply do what we have to do to keep people from dying on the streets," Mr. Rogers said. "We just keep moving things."

Gary Bond, 58, is one of the living statistics.

He's part of the 24.7 percent of Toledo's population living below the poverty line, which the government defines as an annual income of $22,050 or less for a family of four, or $10,830 for a single person, in the 48 contiguous states. Alaska and Hawaii are the only two states with separate guidelines, both of which are slightly higher.

Mr. Bond is unfazed by the latest Census figure, suggesting it is low. "You know it's gotta be more than that by now," he said.

A 1978 University of Toledo graduate and lifelong city resident, he has had almost as many ups and downs as Toledo has itself over the past six decades.

Mr. Bond, who said he is a onetime stage actor and public broadcasting television assistant, grew up in a rough part of the city trying to avoid bullies. He often failed at that, getting beaten up. Eventually, he failed at staying clean, succumbing to the lure of crack cocaine. He lost everything, spending years on the street.

Today, in large part because of how he has embraced spirituality, Mr. Bond works as a homeless advocate. Mr. Bond said most of his money is gone three days into each month but that he has moved forward with a more positive outlook on life. He said he dedicates himself to helping others who have fallen on hard times.

"I think mostly they've been dehumanized," Mr. Bond said of those in need. "They seem to be hidden from society. You have the haves and the have-nots."

As the erosion of the middle class continues, more Toledoans find themselves teetering on the edge.

They may not be in imminent danger of becoming homeless. But losing a job or having to deal with unexpected health issues can be devastating, Bill Kitson, United Way president and chief executive officer, said.

Said Carol Shull, 58, an East Toledo native who now lives in Spencer Township, "With the economy and the way things are, more people are realizing we're all in the same boat."

She was among those pleased to receive clothes at this weekend's Clothing Your Community event at the Cherry Street Mission's Life Bridge Center on Monroe Street.

So was 30-year-old Rachael Lanning of West Toledo, who found a few outfits for her year-old son, Justice Lanning.

She and her husband, Nevin Lanning, 33, who worked at a railroad yard, fell on hard times after he took eight months off to recover from back surgery.

"We trust in the Lord, and He's helped us in hard times," Ms. Lanning said.

Gary Resnick, who owns three dry cleaning establishments called LaSalle Cleaners, came up with the idea for Clothing Your Community. The number of smiles he saw at the event made him beam.

Eighty-five tons of clothes - an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 articles - were donated, almost all since Christmas.

"Look at what can be done. Look at the positive things," Mr. Resnick said. "There are so many things that can be done that don't cost people money. Those are the things that are going to get us through [the recession] until Toledo gets back on its feet."

Phillippe Kurek, 49, of Oregon, said he picked up some clothes to save money for other expenses. He and his wife, Karen, 48, who has lupus and other health problems, are barely making it on his $675 a month in Social Security and disability benefits, Mr. Kurek said.

He said his landlord has been generous with him because he and his wife helped care for the landlord's late mother when she had Alzheimer's disease.

"People need to get out and help other people," Mr. Kurek said.

The need has gone beyond Toledo's city limits and penetrated its suburbs.

A recent Brookings Institution paper shows that Toledo had more than twice the national average of suburban poverty between 2000 and 2008.

At Woodland Elementary School in Perrysburg, nearly 18 percent of the 575 students are in the free and reduced-price breakfast program, up from 8 percent two years ago and 11 percent last year. Many of those are from families whose incomes have fallen below the poverty line, said Dan Creps, Woodland Elementary principal.

Toth and Fort Meigs elementary schools in Perrysburg also have posted large increases in participation over the past year, he said.

"There's no question that it is a growing issue that we find even out in the suburbs," Mr. Creps said. "The way we started to notice it, more and more kids were coming in with upset stomachs."

Upon questioning, school officials found some children had gone 24 hours without food.

"People have that vision of Perrysburg, that they don't have the problems of poverty. When you look closely at those kids, it is happening," Mr. Creps said.

The Obama Administration attempted to jump-start the economy last year with billions of federal stimulus dollars aimed at creating jobs.

But is recovery around the corner - especially for blue-collar Toledoans?

"The indicators out there would say we've not hit rock bottom yet," said Mr. Rogers of Cherry Street Mission Ministries.

A paper published last fall by Sheldon H. Danziger, a poverty expert at the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center, said two things need to happen for the nation's poverty rate to go down significantly.

First, the economy needs to expand enough for the unemployment rate to fall back below 5 percent.

"This is not likely to happen for several years," Mr. Danziger wrote.

Second, federal policies will need to remain focused on the poor and near-poor for some time once the unemployment rate gets under 5 percent.

The last time that happened was in the decade after President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 war on poverty, Mr. Danziger wrote.

Workers with a high school education or less have reaped far fewer benefits from economic boom periods since the mid-1970s than have highly educated and highly skilled workers. Economic growth "was not trickling down to the poor," he wrote.

Mark Rank, a poverty expert at Washington University in St. Louis, said there's a pragmatic reason for addressing poverty: homeland security.

"Having high rates of poverty in Toledo or in the country as a whole can lead to a number of negative consequences, which is a concern to our homeland security or insecurity," said Mr. Rank, the university's Herbert S. Hadley professor of social welfare and author of two books.

Incarceration, one of society's most costly endeavors, often stems from a lack of education and job opportunities. It is estimated that childhood poverty costs Americans $500 billion a year, from increased crime to the need for more health care.

"Poverty is an issue we should have an interest in from an economic point of view," Mr. Rank said. "We're always paying on the back end instead of [making an investment on] the front end."

One success story is Social Security. Because of it, the poverty rate for elderly Americans has been reduced from 35 percent in 1959 to 9.5 percent today, Mr. Rank said.

"The bedrock of America is jobs and jobs that support family," he said. "It used to be that you play by the rules, you work hard, and you have the American dream. As more jobs leave the country, that dream is threatened."

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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