Tackling poverty is the most effective way to improve performance of students in Cleveland schools

PHOTO BY DEBBIE SADLON Sunday, September 18, 2016; Speech by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren at Roberta Steinbacher Atrium, Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, Cleveland State University: Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks to a crowd about how coming out of the Great Depression Americans built an economy that works for the majority of Americans only to have that trend reversed in 1980 with the advent of trickle-down economics.

by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, October 2016)          The End Poverty Now! march was by far the largest demonstration in Cleveland during the Republican National Convention. The marchers brought their message before the national media to draw attention to a critical issue. The message should also be heeded here in Cleveland.

Census bureau data published in this issue of the Plain Press reveals that not only is Cleveland the second poorest big city in the United States of America, but poverty here is getting worse. Even more heart breaking are estimates that half of Cleveland’s children are living in households with income below the poverty line.


The dire situation raises the question of what we as a community are willing to do to turn around this situation. Are we willing to make the sacrifices and changes necessary to tackle poverty in our city? Can we change our political agendas to marshal our resources to this cause?

While there has been much talk about the need to improve educational outcomes in Cleveland, the single most effective way to improve educational outcomes is to reduce poverty. One only has to look at the Report Cards of area school systems to see that evaluations based on state mandated tests don’t measure the quality of educators or the quality of what is happening between teachers and students in the classroom, but rather they are measures of the rate of poverty or wealth in school districts.

In other cities around the country that have adopted portfolio school models like the Cleveland Plan, the result is pressure to close or privatize schools that don’t perform well on tests. Those schools end up being in the poorest neighborhoods. Depriving poor neighborhoods of their schools is not the answer. Cleveland should take a different tact and work to help as many families as possible obtain higher incomes as means to improving family wellbeing, and the resources available to the schools. Shifting children from one school to another in search of better seats will not work when the real problem is the growing number of children living in poverty.

In Greater Cleveland, the school districts at the bottom of the state rating system are the poorest districts. Cleveland, which received all F’s in this go around, has an estimated child poverty rate of over 50%. The three top school districts in the region, Solon, Beachwood and Rocky River all have child poverty rates estimated at less than 8%. (Source 2012 five year ACS estimate via NEO CANDO)

The median household income in Cleveland is estimated at $27,349. The median household income in Solon, the number one scoring school district in the Cleveland area, is $79,543. The median income level means half the households in the community make less than that amount and half make more. (Data source: 2010 ACS five-year estimate via NEO CANDO analysis).

In a September 18th speech at the Maxine Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren gave the crowd, made up mostly of college students, a lesson in the history of the United States economy. Warren said that from 1790 to 1930 America had a boom and bust economy. For many Americans during that time period whatever wealth they gained during the boom times was lost during the busts, said Warren.

Then came the Great Depression in the 1930s. In response to the Great Depression, Warren said the Glass Steagall Act was passed, the Securities and Exchange Commission was created and other measures were taken by the federal government to stem off future financial crisis. She said the United States built the economy out, invested in education, communications, electricity, roads, bridges. “We all pitched in together to build infrastructure and jobs. We invested in research. We built a great pipeline of ideas,” said Warren.

These actions created an economy that works for the majority of Americans, said Warren. From 1935 to 1980, seventy percent of all new income growth went to 90% of Americans, said Warren. She noted this all changed in 1980 with the advent of trickle-down economics. The government used its resources to take care of the rich and powerful. They fired the cops on Wall Street, and cut taxes for those at the top. This meant less resources for education, infrastructure and research.

From 1980 to 2016, Warren said of all the new income created in the United States, people in the bottom 90% of the population received less than ½ of 1%. The wealthiest 10% of the people in the country gained nearly 100% of all new wealth created, she said.

Cleveland has suffered more than most cities from this change in direction of the national economy. The city has also contributed to this trend. Local journalist Roldo Bartimole has documented over the years the pattern of using public money and tax breaks for projects that benefit Cleveland’s wealthiest citizens.

It is past time to reverse this trend and use our public resources to benefit Cleveland’s needy rather than Cleveland’s greedy.

MetroHealth Medical Center’s Chief Executive Officer Dr. Akram Boutros has set an example by raising starting pay at MetroHealth in 2015. At the annual MetroHealth stakeholders meeting in June of this year Boutros said, “Today, no MetroHealth employee earns less than 12 dollars an hour.”

The City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and other publically funded agencies throughout Cuyahoga County should follow this example and raise the pay of their lowest paid employees. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District, currently in contract negotiations with the Cleveland Teachers’ Union should make every effort to increase the wages of para professionals in the school district to a living wage. These actions will help to reduce poverty in Cleveland and ultimately improve the quality of life for Cleveland’s children. The increased income for Cleveland families will ultimately show up in improvements in educational attainment by Cleveland children.

On this November’s ballot are two local issues: a renewal of the operating levy for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and a half cent increase in the City of Cleveland payroll tax. While school leaders and city officials are out campaigning for these taxes, citizens should ask them how they will use these resources and realign existing resources to help the poorest citizens in Cleveland.

The 2012 American Community Survey by the United States Census Department estimates there are now 388,144 people living in the City of Cleveland. Of those, 132,144 are living in poverty. Of those living in poverty, 48,221 were estimated to be children under the age of 17. This leaves 84,623 adults for whom a raise in income could help move their households out of poverty. (United States defines poverty as having annual household income of less than $11,892 for an individual and less than $23,836 for a family of four.)

Raising the wages of current low paid local government workers and creating new jobs for Clevelanders will not address the poverty of all these households, but will be a start. Radical changes in the way the government entities use public dollars will be needed to maximize the impact of government budgets on alleviating poverty.

The City of Cleveland, for example, has a median household income of $27,349. Yet its City Council members make more than 2 ½ times that amount and a number of top City of Cleveland Administrators make more than four times that amount. If the city were to freeze wages for all those making more than twice the median income (currently $54,698), the city could begin to use the funds to increase of the wages of its workers making less than the city’s median income. As people retire, the city could set wage levels lower at the top end of the scale (perhaps limiting salaries of top administrators to three times the median income and city councilmembers to twice the median income.)

This restructuring would have immediate benefits. It would make City Council members and administrators more sensitive to the income of their constituents. It also may change planning and development decisions to help stir city investments toward development that results in higher paying jobs and training residents to acquire the skills to acquire those jobs. It will eventually free up dollars to hire and train more Clevelanders to do necessary jobs like abating lead in Cleveland homes.

It may also make Cleveland City Council more willing to come to the aid of constituents who would like to raise the minimum wage. Instead of complaining that Cleveland would be at a disadvantage if it raises the minimum wage while other nearby communities do not, perhaps City Council and the Administration could help by urging surrounding communities to raise their minimum wages as well. A raise of the minimum wage to $12 per hour would allow an individual working full time to earn $24,960 per year. Such a salary would move a family of four just above the federal poverty line.

As pointed out by Senator Warren at Cleveland State University, the problem in the United States is not the lack of increase in the country’s income (Gross Domestic Product). The problem is that only a few are benefiting from that increase in wealth. It is time to change that trend. While the differences between the highest and lowest paid workers in local government pale in comparison to those in private industry, the willingness of government employees to make sacrifices to benefit the entire community will set a good example for private industry when Clevelanders vote to increase the minimum wage next May.

If local governments take action, perhaps the trend will spread to large private industry where the salaries for executives are many times those of the average worker.

According to the AFL-CIO Executive PayWatch “the average Chief Executive Officer in large Ohio companies made $5,908,773 per year in 2015 – 146 times more money than the average rank and file worker.” The Executive PayWatch website notes that the average production and nonsupervisory Ohio worker at these companies earned approximately $40,334 per year. A wage, it says, when adjusted for inflation has remained stagnant for fifty years.

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