Compared to 30 years ago, do you think it is easier or more difficult today for a person to start poor, work hard and get out of poverty? Are people in poverty because of their personal attributes (e.g., not doing enough) or because of circumstances beyond their control? Are government programs that try to help improve conditions for those in poverty making things better, worse or not having any impact either way? These were some of the questions posed during ideastream’s most recent Listening Project, an annual effort to identify “the things that matter most” to residents of Northeast Ohio. The effort is designed for residents to share what they believe are the region’s top assets and challenges. One of the top challenges declared by residents, year after year, is the region’s high poverty rate.
As such, ideastream—in partnership with the Baldwin Wallace University Community Research Institute (CRI)—surveyed residents to gauge their sentiments about poverty. ideastream surveyed individuals confined to its public media radio and television audiences. CRI surveyed a broader sampling of residents living across seven counties. This group of respondents was a more demographically representative sample of people who live in the region as far as political leanings, income level, education level, age, etc.
When comparing the results of the two surveys, some interesting conclusions emerge.
One conclusion is that the CRI survey respondents attributed poverty to more individual characteristics versus more systemic ones. For example, when asked if the bigger cause of poverty today was due to people not doing enough to help themselves or to circumstances beyond their control, 23 percent of CRI survey respondents felt it was the former—people just aren’t doing enough. By comparison, only 7 percent of ideastream survey respondents answered the same way.
When asked to rate different factors as major, minor or not causes of poverty at all, CRI respondents tended to focus on drug abuse, lack of motivation, too many single parent families, and decline in moral values. Conversely, ideastream respondents felt systemic issues—lack of affordable housing, cost of childcare/school, poor quality of public schools, and lack of access to higher education—were more to blame for poverty.
There were also a number of points of intersection between the two sets of survey respondents, solidifying broader sentiments about poverty.
Take for example that 81 percent of ideastream survey respondents and 75 percent of CRI survey respondents felt it is harder today for a person to start poor and get out of poverty compared to 30 years ago. And, nearly 50 percent of respondents of both surveys felt that government programs to improve the condition of people in poverty aren’t having much impact one way or another.
Perhaps what was most interesting to learn from the exercise was why people feel the way they do. For that, we turned to their written comments. As it relates to it being more difficult to get out of poverty, respondents noted that today’s jobs require more education and skills than before—and to get that education or those skills requires having financial resources to begin with. They also spoke about the lack of availability of jobs, particularly factory-type jobs that the region used to have a plethora of in the past.
Respondents also commented on the inadequacy of government officials to create and manage poverty-alleviating programs to maximize impact. Other respondents said not enough checks and balances are in place to ensure those receiving government assistance are spending those funds appropriately. These comments focused on both systemic issues and personal lack of accountability—consistent with other parts of the survey.
Finally, and perhaps most disheartening, of the 515 CRI survey respondents, 23 percent said they would not be able to pay for a $400 emergency if one occurred today—not by paying cash, using a credit card, borrowing money from a family member or friend, selling something they own, or some other way. Without any comparative data, it’s difficult to say whether 23 percent is high, average or low compared with other regions. But if this result is extrapolated across Northeast Ohio, it suggests that a quarter of the population can’t come up with $400 today to pay for an emergency. That survey response should garner the most attention of all.
To see the full report, please visit: www.ideastream.org/listening-project/winter-2017-poverty