The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 25, 2008

Ashtabula County: A comfortable place to be poor?

By CARL E. FEATHER - Lifestyle Editor - cfeather@starbeacon.com

Have social service agencies and Uncle Sam done their job so well in Ashtabula County that they’ve created a haven for the disabled, indolent, drug-addicted and/or unmotivated?

There’s certainly no shortage of entitlement programs. Government assistance includes food stamps, monthly cash assistance (Ohio Works First temporary assistance) and medical coverage, something many of Ashtabula County’s working poor can’t afford. Local food pantries, soup kitchens, clothing banks and programs like Holiday Angels Loving Others (HALO) round out the provision of assistance. This past Christmas, about 4,700 persons in Ashtabula County had a subsidized holiday.

Lyn Zalewski, executive director of Catholic Charities of Ashtabula, the HALO lead organization, says there is about a 30-percent return rate for HALO recipients. She does not subscribe to the perception that the county has become a welfare magnet, although it’s one she has heard over the years.

“That’s a perception, and for some people, that perception has become reality,” says Richard Pepperney, executive director of Ashtabula County Community Action. “Welfare is a statewide system. There is nothing here different in terms of benefits. We have some really good programs, but in terms of benefits, it is the same throughout the state. There certainly is a perception, but I don’t know where it started.”

“I hear it, but I kind of discount it,” says United Way of Ashtabula County Director Randy Jones. “I even hear people say there are advertisements telling people to come to Ashtabula County (for the public services). I’ve never seen one of these ads, and I wish someone would produce them.”

Jones says there is the possibility people with low-earning potential would be attracted to the community because of its lower housing costs; otherwise, “I don’t think there’s a big migration here,” he says.

United Way of Ashtabula County has a goal of raising more than $900,000 in its current campaign. Jones pays attention to the county’s low per capita income figure because he knows they explain why it is so difficult to raise United Way pledges. Low wages mean less discretionary income, which includes money people can give to charity.

The local organization’s high point was 2000, when it raised $1.05 million. Jones says at that time, there was actually a labor shortage in the county. Since then, the region has slid into a long recession, which has made raising funds much more challenging. At the same time, demand is rising for services at agencies that receive United Way support.

“We certainly are seeing information from organizations we serve — seeing increased demand: more visits to food banks, people needing help because of higher medical costs they can’t cover. Basically, it’s problems related to low income that are rising.”

One of the major factors that has helped make Ashtabula County a poor region has more to do with social shifts than economics. Twenty-four percent of the Ashtabula County households that fall under the poverty level are headed by a female with no husband present. Adult females on Medicaid outpace males by a rate of 1.6 (1.6 females for every male).

Renea Roach, who runs the emergency food program at the Conneaut Human Resources Center, says many people don’t realize the dilemma single mothers face when considering the part-time, minimum-wage, no-insurance jobs prevalent in the local economy.

“If they take a minimum wage job for 20 hours a week, they lose more than they are getting (through entitlement programs),” she says. “The end up working to pay a babysitter. That’s all they work for. A lot of them are in a catch 22. It’s not that they don’t want to go out and work, it’s just that they don’t want to give up what they got.”