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Still feeling the recession

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LORAIN — Those living below the federal poverty line in Lorain County grew slightly between 2013 and 2014, while Lorain made strides toward reducing that number, according to figures released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The county’s poverty rate was 14.6 percent in 2013, and had grown to 14.8 percent of the county’s estimated 304,000 residents by 2014, the figures showed. The highest recent poverty rate was in 2011, when the figure hit 15.4 percent, while in the past 10 years it was lowest in 2007, when 11.1 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.

In Lorain, the only city in the county that was large enough to receive individualized information in the new data release, the poverty rate dropped from 30.1 percent of the population in 2013 to 25.6 percent last year.

Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer said the figure was still too high, but he was pleased to see some improvement.

“Once poverty is established, it takes a lot and it’s very difficult to see it move downward,” he said.

Jackie Boehnlein, executive director of the Lorain County Community Action Agency, said that just because there are fewer people below the federal poverty line — defined in 2014 as $23,850 for a family of four — doesn’t mean those above it aren’t having a hard time getting by.

In Lorain County, she said, in order for someone to be truly self-sufficient, they need an income that’s 234 percent above the federal poverty line.

“What we can say is we’ve had improvements in certain areas, but overall if you’re low-income, you’re still struggling to meet basic needs,” Boehnlein said.

Another metric where Lorain saw growth and the county as a whole saw a dip was in median household income.

The city’s household income grew from $33,026 in 2013 to $36,266 in 2014, a 9.8 percent increase, while the county’s dropped from $53,549 in 2013 to $52,082, a decrease of 2.7 percent.

County Commissioner Ted Kalo said that while he’d like to think there was substantial wage growth in Lorain that drove the figures up in the city, it’s more likely the rise in household income can be attributed to more affluent people moving to Lorain’s west side.

Riteanuer said income inequality and stagnant wage growth for lower- and middle-income workers remain serious problems, not just in Lorain but across the nation. County Commissioner Matt Lundy, who, like Ritenauer and Kalo, is a Democrat, agreed.

“There’s no question pay increases haven’t kept pace with inflation,” he said.

Boehnlein said even people working full-time jobs seek help from her agency and others to make ends meet. She said one area that truly shows just how serious the poverty problem in the county is can be seen in the number of people who don’t have enough food to feed themselves.

In 2013, 44,980 people in the county were considered “food insecure,” according to the website of nonprofit Feeding America.

Julie Chase-Morefield, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank, said that many of those who are in poverty and don’t have enough to eat are children. She said although Lorain’s poverty may have dropped, it’s still a huge problem.

“A 25 percent poverty level in a city is still high when you consider a quarter of people are in poverty,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

The new census estimates also showed that the number of uninsured people in the county has dropped significantly, thanks to the insurance mandate from the Affordable Care Act and Gov. John Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid.

The number of uninsured people in the entire United States dropped from almost 45.2 million in 2013 to about 36.7 million last year. Of that change, 302,351 more people in Ohio had insurance in 2014 than the year before.

In Lorain County, 27,732 people were considered uninsured in 2013, but that figure dropped to 18,344 in 2014. Of the 9,388 uninsured who gained health insurance in the county, 3,653 of them were in Lorain, the Census Bureau reported.

Boehnlein said the drop in the number of uninsured was especially heartening because lack of health insurance is a key factor that keeps people living in poverty. She said those who get sick without insurance will delay seeking medical help until the problem has become even more serious and requires more expensive treatments.

Lundy said people who are sick but lack health care often end up going to work when they’re sick because they can’t afford to miss a day. Having health insurance allows them to get the treatment they need, he said.

“You can’t have healthy families and healthy workers if you don’t have health insurance,” he said.

Thursday’s data release also shows that the number of owner-occupied homes in Lorain County has dropped. In 2006, for instance, the rate was 74.9 percent, but had dropped to 69.4 percent in 2014.

County Auditor Craig Snodgrass said the 5.6 percent decline over that period can be attributed to the recession, the housing crash and the foreclosure crisis. He said in recent years many landlords have reported being at or near capacity on their properties. People who lost their homes needed a place to live as did those who were delaying buying a home because of economic uncertainly, Snodgrass said.

But based on the number of home sales passing through his office, Snodgrass said he expects the percentage of people living in their own homes will begin climbing in the coming years as the economy continues to recover.

The Census Bureau also reported that median values in the county, which dropped from highs of $172,256 in 2006 to a low of $136,193 in 2013, have begun to inch upward. The median value in the county was $136,800 last year.

Kalo and Ritenauer both said economic development efforts are critical if the county’s economy is to see improvement.

Part of the problem, Kalo said, is that the county doesn’t have a workforce that always has the skills that employers are looking for. And though the county’s unemployment rate, which was 6.2 percent in July, isn’t like it was at the height of the recession, some jobs remain unfilled because of the lack of vocational or other necessary training, he said.

“There are jobs available, but we just don’t have trained workers,” Kalo said.

That’s changing, he said, but it will take time.

Ritenauer said that both the county and the city continue to work on bringing in new jobs and keeping the ones they had. But he also noted that the days of employers hiring thousands of workers, such as the steel or auto plants, are mostly in the past.

These days, he said, communities are focusing on bringing in companies with 15 or 20 jobs.



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