Report Says Gap Between Rich, Poor In Ohio Widening

By LIZ SIDOTI, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in Ohio, and the state and federal governments must do more to help close the gap, according to a report released Thursday.

"It's getting a little bit worse every year," said George Zeller, a senior researcher with the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland and the report's author. "This time, we saw an erosion of incomes on a much wider basis."

The Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, which represents the state's 52 local agencies that provide services to the poor, examined Ohio's job and income levels for its fourth-annual State of Poverty in Ohio report.

During the 1990s, the state consistently gained new jobs and saw a 7 percent increase in earnings for the average job from $29,884 in 1990 to $31,988 in 2000. The report said that under those circumstances, poverty should have declined throughout the state.

But the growth Ohio experienced in the 1990s bypassed the areas that needed the boost the most, the report said.

The report showed that incomes skyrocketed in school districts that already were affluent, but fell sharply in poor districts, including Appalachian counties and inner cities.

Ohio's 15 richest school districts saw large income gains over the last decade, while most incomes in the state's 15 poorest districts steadily fell.

For example, a household's average yearly income in the Plain Local school district in Franklin County soared 334 percent in the 1990s, from $42,928 a year in 1989 to $186,293 in 1999, the latest data available. Meanwhile, in the New Boston Local school district in Scioto County, a household's average yearly income fell 4.7 percent from $22,246 in 1989 to $21,200 in 1999.

Gwen Robinson, president of the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, said the current recession will only widen the income gap if the state and federal governments don't act now.

"They've got to stop blaming the social service system for the poverty," Robinson said. "To me that's a smoke screen. They've got to begin to work with us."

The report calls for Congress to extend unemployment compensation benefits for six more months. It also calls for Ohio to establish an earned income tax credit on state income tax returns and to re-examine its three-year time limit for welfare recipients receiving cash assistance.

Moreover, the report said, the state should take actions to minimize the number of families who will suffer because of the current economic situation.

"You don't see much concern about the fact that people are losing jobs," Zeller said. "The federal government has not lifted a finger and the state government is not lifting a finger."

Robinson said that worker retraining and assistance should be expanded and not cut. Until job growth starts up again, she said, the first priority should be helping those hurt by the recession.

Jon Allen, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said Thursday that the number of welfare cases in Ohio has stabilized -- and not grown -- in recent months, despite the recession.

"We are watching the numbers closely," he said, noting families who meet time limits can appeal to counties for extensions for hardship reasons.

"Welfare reform was not designed around a good economy or to solely function during a time of economic strength," Allen said. "It's about a shifting philosophy from depending on the system to focusing on jobs."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)