Photo Caption: Zack Space, Bob Gibbs
The figures show that 43.6 million Americans are living in poverty, up nearly 4 million people since 2008. These numbers include 15.5 million children under the age of 18.
More than 19 million people have incomes below 50 percent of the poverty level and are in extreme poverty, an increase of nearly 2 million people in just one year, Census figures show.
In addition, preliminary poverty figures for each state released by the U.S. Census Bureau show that 1.5 million people were living in poverty in Ohio during 2008-2009, an increase of more than 100,000 people compared to 2006-2007. Exact local poverty figures are slated to be released by the bureau on Sept. 28.
Athens County Job and Family Services Director Jack Frech called poverty a crisis in America, and criticized politicians for cutting assistance to the poor while "extending tax cuts to the rich and spending billions of dollars bailing out Wall Street.
"What we need is a change of heart by our congressional representatives and our president," he said, calling current benefits inadequate and saying leaders should be ashamed they have not done more to help. "These problems have been well-known and exacerbated for years by our political leaders at the state and national level."
The Athens NEWS sent a series of questions to incumbent politicians and candidates to answer about the poverty issue.
Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland pointed out that during hard economic times the need for services grows while resources shrink. Currently, the state of Ohio is facing a $6 billion to $8 billion hole in the next biennial budget.
"I believe my responsibility as governor is to provide steady leadership by balancing the short-term needs of our most vulnerable citizens, especially children living in poverty, with the long-term goal of lifting citizens permanently out of poverty by providing education and job opportunities," he said. "That is why, when working through two state budgets, I tried to maintain basic social safety-net services for those in need and continued to invest in education and Ohio's economic growth."
Strickland was asked how anti-poverty advocates and education people often fight over the same pool of money. One recent example is when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $26 billion jobs bill for teachers last month that was partially paid for by cutting food-stamp payments by $12 billion.
Strickland spokesperson Amanda Wurst said the governor, if re-elected, will work to ensure that those who rely on food stamps receive a benefit that is robust enough to provide them with a daily, healthy diet.
The campaign of Strickland's opponent, former U.S. Rep. John Kasich, was contacted but had not responded to the poverty questions as of press time.
At the congressional level, U.S. Rep. Zack Space, D-Dover, said that he has seen firsthand the crisis of poverty in this region.
"To begin to solve it, we have to get our neighbors back to work in good, sustainable jobs," he said. "So many jobs in Ohio have been outsourced because of reckless trade deals like NAFTA, and we have to stop the bleeding before we move forward. That means repealing NAFTA, and I'm cosponsoring legislation that would do just that," said Space, whose 18th District includes parts of northern Athens County.
He said poverty is such a difficult issue to tackle because it's caused by many factors coming together such as lack of access to education, infrastructure and quality health care, as well as the "digital divide," where rural areas are not up to speed technologically with urban areas.
As examples of recent government initiatives to help alleviate poverty, Space cited the $66 million he brought to Ohio to expand broadband access in rural areas through "Connecting Ohio," as well as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act providing funding for transportation and public-works projects.
His opponent, state Sen. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, said government needs to restore confidence in the private sector to create jobs.
"We also need to focus our efforts on job-training programs and financial education that will help create full-time, ready-to-work employees," he said. "We need programs that provide people in need a hand up instead of a handout."
Gibbs stated that current policies of the federal government are not working, and that the economy needs to be turned around first and foremost.
"We do this by reducing our deficit spending, cutting taxes and shrinking government," he said. "These initiatives will restore confidence and employers will hire and create new jobs. We cannot keep funding programs that obviously don't work; we need programs that help to get people out of poverty."
He said poor people need incentives to go back to school or learn a trade instead of being encouraged to not look for work. Also, he said, a sense of the importance of education needs to be instilled in young people.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-St. Clairsville, acknowledged that the root causes of poverty can not be tackled without taking care of education and health care, which he pointed out are issues that the current Congress and administration have focused on.
"But, as we work on the root causes of poverty, we must help alleviate the immediate pain poverty causes," said Wilson, who represents the 6th District, which includes most of Athens County. "That's why I voted to increase food-stamp funding through the Recovery Act and to extend unemployment benefits to those struggling to find work in this tough economy."
He said the latest Census figures are further evidence of the pain of the recession, and they make a strong case for why everything possible must be done to turn the economy around.
"Our government should help small businesses create more jobs in our communities, while cracking down on big corporations that have been rewarded too long for shipping jobs overseas and ducking their responsibilities here at home," Wilson said. "There is no question that the best anti-poverty program is a job. I have repeatedly voted to close loopholes that make it possible to ship good American jobs overseas."
He also said he supported recent actions by Congress to cut taxes on small businesses.
His opponent, businessman Bill Johnson, a Republican from Poland, said the focus needs to be on the creation of good jobs with pay levels that allow families to grow and prosper.
"The answer is not having government solve the poverty issue - instead, the answer is to remove barriers so that small businesses and the private sector can grow," he said. "Common-sense reforms to issues such as education and health care will allow families to save more of their hard-earned money, and to spend it as they choose."
Johnson said Americans cannot rely on government to solve the nation's poverty issue, and that efforts must be focused on reducing the size and cost of government and creating a competitive economy.
"The answer is not creating more debt or more federal spending," he said. "The private sector holds the key to solving our nation's poverty issue. We must allow the private sector freedom to rev up our national economic engine and give citizens freedom from a cycle of poverty."
The 6th District, he said, needs to be a more business-friendly place, so that industry will want to locate in the district, which will create more well-paying jobs.
"This is not done by creating additional tax burdens for citizens or businesses by over-regulating the businesses where they work," he said.
MEANWHILE, state Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Athens, said that in balancing the last biennial budget, she and other state legislators worked hard to protect the most vulnerable people and invest in things that position Ohio for recovery, such as education.
"It is important to protect vulnerable people, help people develop needed skills to help them find jobs and ensure a good education system," said Phillips, whose 92th House District includes Athens County. "Our education system must include an effective pre-K through 16 system, career-technical education, and smart workforce development."
She said poverty indicators need to be evaluated for their effectiveness in measuring the problem. Also, she said, programs that are individually targeted should be developed so that people are able to get appropriate education and training while basic needs are met.
"Programs must allow for a rational transition off of assistance," she said. "Too often, if an individual starts to earn money, they lose benefits to the extent that they are unable to continue their education or their job (child care, medical care, etc.). Policies should encourage efforts toward self-sufficiency."
Phillips pointed to various opportunities in the area to gain experience working on public projects.
"Some people are working on public works, through stimulus-funded projects in the region," she said. "The Nelsonville bypass is one, and the weatherization program is another. Community Action agencies in the area have been able to hire additional people to do this work, and those people are earning a paycheck, and learning marketable skills at the same time."
Her opponent, former Ohio State Patrol Athens Post Commander Mike Hunter, R-Athens, said that no amount of figuring will ever make various advocates believe they are getting a sufficient share of the pot of money. He cited fourfold increases in the cost of education while the number of students has only increased by 9 percent.
"Encouraging dependence instead of self-reliance is harming our country and contributes to generational welfare and poverty," Hunter asserted. "We must examine our system, decide what our government should and should not do, and then adapt a new model accordingly."
He indicated that measurements of poverty can be misleading and should be changed, and also said that immigrants and single women raising children account for high percentages of the poor population.
"Ideally, if poor mothers married the fathers of their children, almost three-quarters would not be in poverty any longer," Hunter said. "This is probably an unreasonable expectation and cannot be legislated, but a healthy marriage culture encourages adults to live so that children are raised and nurtured by both parents."
He added that major programs such as food stamps, public housing and Medicaid should require work, and should at least encourage marriage (all of these programs do currently require some degree of work).
Hunter said that the local attitude against industry hurts chances of bringing new jobs to the area.
"Rather than relying on government funds to solve all problems, government should get out of the way and allow the market to bring the jobs that are needed," he said.
The full statements of these politicians and candidates can be found here at athensnews.com.
This is the sixth article in a series focused on working people facing financial hardship in Athens County. This is the story of residents who have had to take on low-wage jobs to make ends meet, and the difficulties they face. This article focuses on new U.S. Census figures showing rises in poverty, and various politicians and candidates speaking about the poverty issue.