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County poverty rate dips 'but still too big'

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LORAIN – Poverty is down in Lorain County, according to figures released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Jackie Boehnlein, executive director of the Lorain County Community Action Agency, said any dip in poverty is a good thing, but there’s still a long way to go to deal with the persistent problem.

Both Lorain County and the city of Lorain, the only community in the county for which numbers were released, saw a drop in the poverty level between 2014 and 2015.

The county’s poverty rate dropped from 14.8 percent in 2014 to 13.5 percent last year, a decrease of 1.3 percent. That’s the lowest the rate has been in nearly a decade. The last time the poverty rate in the county was under 14 percent was in 2008, at the start of the Great Recession, when it was 12.5 percent.

Lorain’s poverty rate went down 1.2 percent, dropping from 25.6 percent in 2014 to 24.4 percent in 2015.

“The (new) poverty rate is good news, but still too big,” Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer said.

Although Lorain’s poverty rate remained higher than the national and state averages, the drop in poverty rates in both the city and the county outpaced the decline in poverty rates both statewide and nationally.

In 2014, the United States as a whole had a poverty rate of 15.5 percent, which dropped to 14.7 percent last year. In Ohio, the poverty rate was 15.8 percent in 2014 and dipped to 14.8 percent in 2015

Boehnlein said although people are working – the county’s unemployment rate was 5.9 percent in July – that doesn’t mean people are able to make ends meet.

“Unemployment is down and people are working, but they’re working in jobs that pay less,” she said.

Ritenauer agreed and said the problem of high-paying jobs leaving the urban core of the county can be seen in the idling of the steel mills in Lorain this year. The new jobs that workers are taking to get by usually aren’t as generous with wages.

“These jobs just do not pay what manufacturing jobs pay and that cumulatively is going to have an impact,” he said.

Median household income has also risen slightly across the county, even as it has decreased in Lorain.

The Census Bureau figures show the county’s median household income was $52,373 in 2015, up slightly from $52,147 in 2014. That’s still a sharp decline from the median household income of $64,099 the bureau recorded in 1999.

Meanwhile in Lorain, the median household income has continued to fall from a 15-year high in 1999 of $48,267 to $36,311 in 2014. Last year the figure dropped again to $35,447, a 2.4 percent decline.

Akron, the only other large city in the state to show a decline in median household income, dropped 0.5 percent, from $34,824 in 2014 to $34,639 in 2015.

County Administrator Jim Cordes said he anticipates that the numbers in Lorain could be even worse when the data for 2016 is released because the most recent numbers don’t fully take into account the idling of steel plants in Lorain and the rippling impact on the economy.

By way of comparison, the national median household income has rise from $53,724 in 2014 to $55,775 in 2015. Ohio has seen similar growth, climbing from a median household income of $49,369 in 2014 to $51,075 last year.

Boehnlein said the small increase in median household income is likely the result of what’s happening in more affluent communities such as Avon and Avon Lake as opposed to the cities hardest hit by poverty such as Lorain and Elyria.

“I think it’s a reflection of the working poor,” she said.

The key, Boehnlein said, is for leaders in the county to figure out how to not only find ways of getting people to work now, but also how to get them the skills they need to win higher wage jobs in the future. That needs to be coupled, she said, with economic development efforts to bring industries with better pay scales into the county.

Boehnlein said the plight of the working people is often compounded by a lack of transportation. The county’s limited public transit options don’t do enough to get people to the jobs because many people whose income hovers around the poverty line don’t have cars.

She said a perfect example is what happened when the Henderson Bridge in Lorain was closed to pedestrians for repair work. People on both sides of the bridge suddenly found it illegal for them to walk to work, which led her poverty-fighting to set up a seven-day a week bus shuttle to get people across the bridge so they could get to their jobs.

Ritenauer said that the bridge needed to be repaired and the decision to close it to pedestrians was made at the state level. He said expects it will eventually reopen to walkers when the work is completed.

The Census Bureau data also looked at median home values and showed a 5 percent increase in the county. In 2014, the median home value was $136,970, but jumped to $143,800 last year.

That’s still doesn’t bring values back to where they were before the Great Recession. In 2008, the median value of a home in the county stood at $161,829.

Cordes said as with the income levels, the county’s property values are being buoyed in part by the influx of people from western Cuyahoga County into Lorain County. The largest growth is in places like North Ridgeville and Columbia and Eaton townships, he said.

“There’s a lot of growth on the east side of the county and that’s why the numbers are ticking up,” Cordes said.

But the figures show property values dropped by 3.2 percent in Lorain, falling from $84,705 in 2014 to $82,000 in 2015.

Ritenauer said the city continues to struggle with issues that drag down property values such as vacant and abandoned property and housing code violations.

County Auditor Craig Snodgrass said the Census Bureau figures sound about right based on what he’s seen as his office reviews property values.

“Our values are really reflective of where the market’s at right now,” he said.

Overall, both Snodgrass and Cordes said they expect the county’s home values to continue to move upward in the coming years.

Nationally, home values climbed from a median value of $181,426 in 2014 to $194,500 in 2015, an increase of 7.2 percent. In Ohio, the increase was still present, albeit smaller.

In 2014, the median value of a home was $129,261, but that increased to $136,400 in 2015, a hike of 5.5 percent.

The rate of owner-occupied homes also remains below levels from a decade ago in both the county and the city of Lorain, according to the Census Bureau

The county’s rate of owner-occupied homes was 74.9 percent in 2006, but was 69.4 percent in 2014. That figure increased to 71.6 percent last year.

Back in 2006, 61.2 percent of homes in Lorain were occupied by their owner, according to the Census Bureau data, but the level was 55.1 percent in 2014 and actually dropped slightly to 55 percent in 2015.

Nationally, the rate of owner-occupied homes was 63 percent in 2015, while statewide, it was 65.4 percent.

David Knox contributed to this story.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or Follow him on Twitter @BradDickenCT.

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