Cleveland City Council declares racism a public health crisis


Cleveland City Council declares racism a public health crisis


by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, July 2020)    At its June 3rd meeting, Cleveland City Council declared racism is a public health crisis. The legislation was unanimously passed by Cleveland City Council.

   Four Cleveland City Councilmembers joined with members of the Racism and Public Health Crisis Working Group on the steps of Cleveland City Hall for a June 5th press conference to discuss the newly passed resolution and how the city plans to address the public health concerns it raises.


   Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley; Cleveland City Council Health and Human Services Committee Chair Blaine Griffin, Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones and Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack all attended and spoke at the press conference. In addition to the City Council members, speakers at the press conference included: Marsha Mockabee of the Urban League: Margaret Mitchell of the YWCA; Helen Forbes Field of the United Way of Greater Cleveland; and Christian Farmer of Birthing Beautiful Communities.

   In a press release issued prior to the press conference, Councilman Griffin, a sponsor of the legislation, explained how the current pandemic has highlighted the impact of racism on our city. “The pandemic has laid bare even more plainly that African Americans and other minority groups who have less access to high quality medical care, cleaner environments, and healthy fresh food are dying at greater rates than others, despite not being infected at a higher rate,” said Councilman Blaine Griffin.

   However, Griffin said the legislation was introduced before the impact of the pandemic was known. He said existing racial disparities in health outcomes, including infant mortality rates, were being examined as examples of the impact of racism on public health.

   The City Council press release offered a definition of a public health crisis agreed upon by experts: “A public health crisis is when the problem affects a large number of people, threatens health over the long-term, and requires the adoption of large-scale solutions.”

   According to City Council the resolution declares that “Council recognizes that racism is a public health crisis that affects all members of our society both on a local level and nationwide and deserves action from all levels of government and civil society.”

   Cleveland City Council says the resolution “also supports the establishment of a working group to address these issues and to: seek solutions to reshape the discourse and actively engage all citizens in racial justice work; continue to work to build alliances with organizations that are confronting racism and encourage partners to recognize racism as a public health crisis; continue to promote racially equitable economic and workforce development (and,  in Cleveland, continue to promote racially equitable hiring and promotion of all employees including City employees); and advocate and draft relevant policies that prioritize the health of people of color and mitigate exposure to adverse childhood experiences and trauma in childhood.”

   Speaking of the need to address racism as a public health issue, Griffin says, “We must act swiftly. Now is the time, after too long a period of inaction.”

   Given recent events highlighted by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Councilman Griffin added “equitable law enforcement will not be overlooked.”

   A member of the Racism and Public Health Crisis Working Group added childhood poverty as a major concern to be addressed in tackling this public health crisis. She cited statistics from a recent report by the Centers for Community Solutions that said among cities in the United States with populations over 250,000 Cleveland had the second highest poverty rate and the highest child poverty rate.

   A blog by Emily Campbell on the Center for Community Solutions website,, titled “Cleveland ranks 1-2-3 in poverty” says “Cleveland is worst in child poverty, second for working age adults, and third in older adult poverty.”

   The source cited by the Campbell, the United States Census Bureau, estimates the 2018 childhood poverty rate in Cleveland at 50.5%, meaning just over half of the children in Cleveland are living below the official poverty line. Cleveland’s overall poverty rate is estimated at 33.1%, second only to Detroit, Michigan.

   While somewhat dated, a 2016 ward population profile provided by the Center for Community Solutions indicates that the percentage of Cleveland children living in poverty is highest in wards with predominately Black or Hispanic populations. At least 25% of children in every ward in Cleveland are living in poverty, with a high of 77.7% in predominately black Ward 5 and a low of 25.9% predominately white Ward 17.

   Following the statistics noted by the member of the Racism and Public Health Crisis Working Group, Council President Kevin Kelley was asked what specific actions Cleveland City Council had taken to address childhood poverty in Cleveland given that this isn’t the first year Cleveland has led the nation in having the highest percentage of its children living in poverty. Council President Kelley answered that everything the City Council does addresses childhood poverty.

   Yet it seems that Cleveland City Council should seriously examine everything that it does. If everything City Council is doing addresses childhood poverty, why are we still the city with the highest childhood poverty rate in the nation?

   Some examples of actions taken by Cleveland City Council that limit the city’s ability to address the needs of its poorest citizens involve the city of Cleveland’s tax subsidies to developers, tax abatements to new homeowners, and its devotion of major long term tax dollars to the building of stadiums and arenas.

   It seems that Cleveland City Council has yet to meet a developer it did not want to award a tax break to. Lately, it is not only awarding fifteen-year tax abatements to developers building new apartment buildings, but also is tacking on another 15 years of tax increment financing – allowing the apartment owner to use (non-school) property tax dollars to make improvements on their property for another 15 years after the initial tax abatement.  All these dollars should be going into city, or school system, or library system coffers. Taxes would allow the city, school system and library system to offer more programs and services to Cleveland’s families – helping them to deal with the impact of poverty. Addressing such concerns as increasing staffing for school and after school programs, internet connectivity for families, preventing evictions, preventing lead poisoning, offering additional public sector jobs to residents, and assistance to avoid utility shutoffs would help to stabilize Cleveland families. While there has been talk about eliminating tax abatement in neighborhoods with hot real estate markets such as Tremont, Ohio City and Detroit Shoreway – that has not happened. New developments still go up without any property tax going to the schools for 15 years.

   In a March 23 article, titled “With revenue about to plunge, Cleveland Council should delay vote on Sherwin-Williams incentive package” on the Policy Matters Ohio website, Policy Matters researcher Zach Schiller urges Cleveland City Council to reconsider giving away $100 million of its future tax base in light of layoffs due to COVID-19. Schiller argued that due to the layoffs the City of Cleveland should expect that it will lose a large portion of its main source of revenue, the payroll tax.

   Schiller argues in the article that Sherwin-Williams did not need or deserve the tax incentives that the City of Cleveland was offering. He noted the company had the resources to spend $1.2 billion to buy back its own stock. Schiller also notes that “Sherwin-Williams paid Chief Executive Officer John G. Morikis $14.85 million, 349 times the amount paid to the company’s median employee. The city of Cleveland should not provide $100 million to a company that reinforces inequality.”

   In furthering his argument, Schiller cites a recent article in Governing magazine that says such incentives are unnecessary. “Study after study demonstrates that when states and cities give out tax breaks to companies looking to relocate or expand, they typically get very limited bang for their bucks, if any.” Schiller further states, “Timothy J. Bartik of the W.E. Upjohn Institute reviews 30 studies on such incentives and found at least 75% of the time – and possibly up to 98% of the time – the firms would have made the same decision without the incentives. Sherwin Williams paid $49 million for land for its new headquarters in downtown Cleveland, before city and state incentives had been approved.”

   Cleveland City Council also opposed major citizen led attempts to address poverty through ballot initiatives. They opposed the effort led by Greater Cleveland Congregations and a number of other activist groups to have a dollar for dollar match of money for social services for every tax dollar given to Quicken Loans Arena for its expansion. Cleveland City Council also opposed an effort to raise the minimum wage in the City of Cleveland. Cleveland City Council members did nothing when residents tried to get major property tax exempt hospitals such as Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals to make payments in lieu of taxes to help pay for local education, health and human services.

   In the past Cleveland City Council worked to stymie efforts by the Cleveland Teachers Union and Cleveland educational activists to end property tax abatement in Cleveland.

   Investment in human beings and their future is crucial to ending the cycle of poverty. Education is a proven long-term route to help people to emerge from poverty. Taking dollars directly from education to offer a tax break for new homeowners deprives the school system of much needed revenue for 15 years.

   Cleveland City Council members would insist their policies are the correct ones. They are attracting new residents who they insist will eventually pay property taxes. Yet a whole generation of children will go from Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 12 before any school system revenue is realized from a person building a new home in Cleveland. Cleveland schools will continue to have less resources than the property tax wealth of the city would merit.

   Cleveland City Council is being asked by Black Lives Matter Cleveland and other activist groups to take a serious look at its budget and align its resources to better meet the health, education and human services needs of Cleveland residents. It will be interesting to see if Cleveland City Council is up to the task. At the same time Cleveland City Council should examine all its tax incentive programs. Such programs have led to depriving Cleveland’s children of resources they so desperately need to help provide the necessary stability to shake off the shackles of poverty. Efforts to tackle racism and classism in public policy will take additional resources. Ending tax incentives to developers and new homeowners will help provide those resources.

   If Cleveland City Council members insist their policies are the best for the future of Cleveland’s children, ask them why, after so many years of pursuing these polices, does Cleveland still have the highest child poverty rate in the country?

   City Council Members should ask themselves who their policies are benefiting? If such policies are largely benefiting wealthy white Major League sports team owners or apartment developers at the expense of largely black, Hispanic, and poor white children, then those policies are contributing to the racist and classist status quo in our society. Will we be facing the same disparities a generation from now? The answer is yes, if we do not change our patterns and practices of doing business at Cleveland City Hall.

Childhood Poverty by Ward

Center for Community Solutions analysis 

of United States Census 2016 estimates 

City Council  Percentage of children

Ward              living below poverty line

1                47.6%

2                      51.5%

3                      61.8%

4                      60.3%

5                      77.7%

6                      63.1%

7                      66.5%

8                      47.7%

9                      64.9%

10                    52.4%

11                    46.7%

12                    59.4%

13                    32.3%

14                    60.8%

15                    54.5%

16                    32.2%

17                    25.9%

City Wide 

Average           53.5%

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