A recent analytical report from community non-profit the Athens Foundation highlights some of the main issues facing Athens County and its residents.
The report, called the 2016 Athens County Report, identifies common problems in Athens County that echo similar issues residents face throughout rural Appalachia: Income inequality, food insecurity, substandard housing and an opioid addiction crisis.
At the same time, the report also identifies some of the positive work being done locally to improve the situations of underserved populations in the county, as well as what else can be done to further that goal. The Athens NEWS will follow up on the efforts detailed in the report in our next edition.
The Athens County Report was produced in collaboration with Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and the School of Visual Communication.
According to the report, Athens County currently has the most extreme rate of income inequality of any county in Ohio.
“Across the state, the highest-earning 20 percent of households make, on average, nearly five times more than the lowest earning 20 percent of households,” the report reads. “In Athens, the top 20 percent make nearly seven times more than the bottom 20 percent.”
While income inequality is “common” in rural university communities such as Athens, OU distinguished professor of economics emeritus Richard Vedder said in the report, those universities still must offer nationally competitive wages that are “much higher than the local norm” to attract new employees.
The report notes that 30 percent of Athens County residents live below the federal poverty line, according to Census data. In correcting that number to account for the large college-student population, the report cites a working paper from the U.S. Census Bureau that suggests how to calculate poverty rates in college towns.
“Questions are often asked about how the large population of college students affects these numbers,” the report notes. “Although the U.S. Census Bureau routinely excludes college students living in dorms when they compute poverty statistics, a recent study estimated that excluding students living off-campus as well would reduce the Athens County poverty rate to approximately 20 percent, still significantly higher than state (16 percent) and national (15 percent) averages.” (That, however, would remove from Athens County the dubious distinction of being, statistically, “the poorest in Ohio.” Meigs County, for instance, reported 22.6 percent residents below the poverty rate in 2014.)
The report also notes that nearly three out of 10 children in Athens County live below the poverty line, and more than half of the children in the county qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“One factor contributing to this high child-poverty rate may be Athens County’s higher-than-average gender-wage gap,” the report reads. “Currently, women who work earn a median income of $15,496 (56 percent of the median income for men). This is a larger gap than exists for Ohio (67 percent) and the United States overall (71 percent).”
The report explains that some state-level research suggests that much of Ohio’s gender -pay gap can be explained by “variations in education, employment sector, job type, hours worked, and time devoted to childrearing.”
“However, even after all these work-related differences are taken into account, a 7 percent difference between male and female wages remains in Ohio,” the report notes.
Athens County has a high rate of abandoned and inadequate housing, the report notes. When asked about the most pressing problems facing their communities, the report says, “many Athens County mayors and elected officials” mentioned housing blight, especially for population centers outside the city of Athens such as Nelsonville, Chauncey, Glouster and Trimble.
“A higher percentage of Athens County houses are vacant (16 percent), compared to state (11 percent) and national averages (13 percent),” the report reads. “This can cause safety issues and translate into a reduced tax base due to unpaid property taxes. In addition, unoccupied homes are often run-down looking… A large number of these in an area can further suppress home values and interfere with economic development efforts.”
Additionally, at least 160 families in the county are living in houses without complete plumbing facilities, and 216 are living in houses that lack a full kitchen, according to the report.
To complicate matters, it’s more expensive to rent or own housing in the city of Athens on average than it is in Ohio as a whole, the report highlights.
“When combined with high unemployment and low wages, this results in a larger percentage of ‘house burdened’ residents in Athens County (37 percent) than in the state (31 percent) or the nation (35 percent),” the report reads. “A household is considered house burdened when 30 percent or more of its income is spent on housing.”
The city of Athens especially has a massive amount of rental units versus owner-occupied homes (only 28 percent of the homes in Athens city are owner-occupied). Comparatively, 57 percent of the homes in Athens County are owner-occupied, compared with 67 percent in Ohio and 64 percent in the U.S. The demand for rental housing in the areas surrounding Hocking College and OU in turn pushes low-income families outside of Athens to obtain low-cost housing, the report explains. This can make it more difficult for those families to obtain work, groceries, medical care, and participate in preschool and other educational or social activities.
“We have families that work jobs, they bag groceries and work with hospice patients, and they come home to live in a trailer with no plumbing or in a house built in 1900 that hasn’t had any updates since the 1960s,” Kenneth Oehlers said in the report. Oehlers is executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Southeast Ohio.
According to the report, 47 percent of Athens County households without a car live in communities not covered by the Athens Transit bus system
Health and addiction
Athens County has “unusually high rates” of food insecurity, the report notes.
About one out of every five Athens County residents (21 percent) are estimated to be food insecure, compared to 17 percent of Ohioans and 15 percent of the country’s population.
“This can occur because a person doesn’t have enough money to buy healthy food, can’t get to the store or both,” according to the report. “Fourteen percent of Athens County residents are low-income and live more than 10 miles from a grocery store (compared to a state average of 6 percent). Seventeen percent of Athens County residents receive SNAP benefits (food stamps).”
The report cites a statistic from the Maternal Opiate Medical Support Project that notes the project has provided counseling and medication-assisted treatment to 106 pregnant women and mothers dealing with addiction to opioids and other drugs since 2014.
“The number of babies born addicted to drugs is one of the more ‘poignant and consequential results of a broader statewide and regional trend of increased opioid abuse,’ according to Joe Gay, executive director of Health Recovery Services,” the report reads. “This increase seems tied to high unemployment and poverty rates, increased heroin availability, and a spike in the prescription of opioid medications in the late 1990s and early 2000s.”
However, Athens County residents are better off than the rest of Ohio on some health measures, including obesity, heart disease and high blood-pressure rates, the report notes. At the same time, the lung-cancer rate is higher in Athens County than in the state or the nation, accounting for 17 percent of all cancer cases and 30 percent of all cancer-related deaths in the county.
Another health-related issue is that Athens County has far fewer dentists per person than in the rest of Ohio, with the report noting that there are 4,310 people per dentist in the county, compared to 1,710 per dentist in Ohio and 1,667 per dentist in the U.S. Also, 22 percent of Athens County resident have “poor dental health” compared with 19 percent in Ohio and 16 percent in the country, the report reads.