The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 25, 2008

Taxpayers bearing the brunt

By DORIS COOK - Staff Writer

When payday came for Ashtabula County�s 102,703 residents in 2005, taxpayers wrote 25.5 percent of the total.

That figure comes from the �Ashtabula County Job and Family Services Profile,� a state report released earlier this year. The percentage quoted is called the Rate of Dependency on Income Supports and is the total amount of income support provided by taxpayer dollars divided by total personal income for the county.

In Ohio, the overall rate is 17.1 percent. Ashtabula County�s 25.5 percent rate ranks it 16th of 88 Ohio counties. Only counties in �Appalachian� Ohio have higher poverty and government-assistance rates.

It has not always been this way, however. In 1970, only 9.6 percent of the county�s wages were �transfer receipts;� the majority (79.2 percent) of personal income in the county came from net earnings: jobs.

Good-paying jobs left the area, residents turned to entitlements, and the population grayed. Concurrently, the proportion of transfer receipts to personal income more than doubled, from 9.6 percent to 21.4 percent in 1990. It�s been climbing ever since, refusing to yield to the millions of dollars spent on economic development through Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County and other public and private investment.

In 2005, net earnings accounted for only 62.6 percent of personal income in Ashtabula County. Earnings from dividends and rents have remained relatively flat throughout the period. The county trails both the state and nation in net earnings as a percentage of total personal income, although in 1970, its percentage was higher than the national rate of 77.2 percent.

It�s not just personal income that�s being subsidized by Mr. Taxpayer. In 2004, it cost the taxpayer, on average, $8,026 for every county resident who received medical care through the state Medicaid program. Then there were 7,567 Ashtabula County residents who received those services.

Why must the people of a county with so much potential turn to their neighbors for their bread? And what does it matter if they do?

Patrick J. Arcaro, director of the Department of Job and Family Services for Ashtabula County, says it is that agency�s goal to help every Ashtabula County resident earn a sustainable wage, an income that will make taxpayer assistance unnecessary.

When Star Beacon readers were polled last month on how much money it would take to maintain a family of four without any government assistance, 53.76 percent of those responding said more than $45,000 annually. For a single-wage-earner home, that�s more than $21 an hour ($45,000 annually), a rate rarely found in the county.

As long as workers cannot earn enough to sustain themselves and their charges, the difference must be made up by taxpayers, whether from payments through federal- and state-funded programs or from the goodness of their hearts.

The costs mount up quickly. Job and Family Services doled out $206 million in services to Ashtabula County residents in 2006. The bulk of these services, $174 million, deals with �income maintenance.�

These numbers help explain, in part, why Ashtabula County has such low per capita and household income figures: Public assistance dollars, while staggering as aggregate amounts, are small per capita.

What the numbers don�t reflect is income some members of this segment receive under the table: manufacturing/ selling drugs, prostituting themselves, stripping copper from vacant homes, or selling items on eBay, in garage sales or flea markets without reporting their earnings to the IRS.

Arcaro says another factor in this equation is the large population of disabled residents. One out of every five Ashtabula County residents over the age of 5 has some kind of medical or mental disability, according to Job and Family Services data.

�It�s staggering,� says Arcaro of the 19.7 percent rate, a fact Jim Noyes, executive director of the Ashtabula Metro Housing Authority, has observed in the public housing sector, as well.

�That�s higher than the U.S. rate,� Arcaro says. �That�s a huge factor.�

These disabled workers are often very difficult to place in jobs. Last year, Job and Family Services� JobSource placed just 34 of these hard-to-place individuals. Training costs for just one person can be as high as $7,000.