Lots of Jobs, Not Much Pay

The recent story by The Athens News’ Conor Morris reiterates why it is important not only to have jobs, but to have living wage jobs that support families and increase the economic prosperity of Athens County. Find the complete story below or at http://bit.ly/2jSugfL 

January 18, 2016

By: Conor Morris

The Great Recession of 2007-2009 hit the country hard, and southeast Ohio was no different. Even worse, there’s little evidence to suggest that the economic recovery in the years Barack Obama was in office actually affected Athens County in any significant way.

A lack of living-wage jobs is one of the main contributors to the increasing number of people in Ohio and especially in southeast Ohio who are in need of food-bank services. As The NEWS has reported previously in this series, Athens County leads the state in the percentage of individuals who are eligible for Ohio Association of Foodbank services. That’s 50.7 percent of its population, according to a five-year estimate in 2015.

Statewide, the number of people living with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level has increased from an average of 3.4 million people from 2005-2009 to an average of 3.8 million people per year in 2011-2015, according to census data.

Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, said that another recession may be ahead for the state.

“We can’t wait and hope that some remnants of the recovery trickle down to the most vulnerable people in our state,” Hamler-Fugitt said in a release. “We’ve continued to have more and more people visiting our pantries to put food on their table when their paychecks or meager Social Security checks run out. More than a third of the people in our state are living in households with incomes that don’t always stretch to meet all of their basic needs.”

Jack Frech, former director of the Athens County Job and Family Services, said that Athens County has been the victim of a “phased-in” loss of large industrial sources of jobs over the past century, He said it wasn’t just the loss of mining companies that hit the county’s residents hard as coal mines largely abandoned the county in the mid-20th century.

“Over time Athens County and a lot of other southeastern communities have lost small manufacturing jobs as well,” Frech said. “When I came here 40-some years ago, there were lots and lots of little tool and dye shops and machine shops.”

What, if anything, has replaced those jobs? By and large, lots and lots of temporary, part-time, low- or minimum-wage service jobs. When Walmart came to Athens city, for example, it brought a lot of jobs with it. But like other service-industry jobs, Frech said, people can barely support themselves on the wages they get. Moreover, many who live out in the county often struggle to afford keeping a car on the road to drive themselves to the relatively big population centers in Athens and Nelsonville to work the jobs.

The largest employers in the county have become local governments, schools and Ohio University, Frech said, which is not necessarily a good thing. That’s because those jobs sometimes require a college education that is inaccessible to many of the working-class people who live in rural parts of the county.

(The 10 largest employers in the county as of November 2014 were – in descending order – Ohio University, OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital, Athens County, Hocking College, Athens City Schools, Rocky Brands, Walmart, Alexander Local Schcools, the city of Athens, and Diagnostic Hybrids/Quidel.)

More and more, Frech said, due to the cost of housing ever-increasing in the area, people are banding together with close and distant family members in order to keep a roof over their head, sometimes stacking up in small substandard homes and trailers with up to 10 people at a time.

According to Sara Marrs-Maxfield, executive director of the Athens County Economic Development Council, one of the biggest challenges facing the county’s attempts to bring industry back to the area is a lack of a space appropriate for such development.

“We have little space suitable for manufacturing and other industrial activities,” Marrs-Maxfield said in an email. “From 2014-2016, Athens County missed opportunities to compete for 38 state-generated (JobsOhio) attraction opportunities; eliminated for lack of suitable building or acreage available, and an additional 15 for infrastructure shortfalls for what the company(s) required.”

Marrs-Maxfield said that some indicators bode well for the county – for example, the county experienced 6 percent job growth across “all sectors” over the past five years. Similarly, her organization helped local factory Athens Mold & Machine reopen its doors recently with grant support, meaning at least 60 new jobs created last year and in the coming few years.

IN BASICALLY every part of the county, including in the typically better-off Athens, people are struggling to make ends meet.

Nelsonville City Council member Taylor Sappington recognizes the struggles of the working class in Nelsonville. That city, along with other rural parts of the county, largely went for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, although Barack Obama took the city of Nelsonville in 2012.

“Many of our residents that I’ve met who are struggling the most do work, despite the stereotypes. Everything from nursing to homecare to minimum wage,” Sappington said. “Some are disabled and fewer others are unemployed, in my experience. Most of the times they need transportation. Many are struggling too much to pay for food, let alone a car to work. Being a rural area without a car limits their earning potential by thousands, if not tens of thousands, a year.”

Recently, The Athens NEWS stopped in to talk to operators of the Nelsonville Food Cupboard, a food pantry that’s open Thursday-Saturday each week from noon to 3 p.m. It provides a three-day box of food to residents once a month, provided for by the Ohio Foodbank Association and local donations. The Food Cupboard also has a thrift store attached, as well as a “backpack” program that provides food for area students.

Margaret Sheskey, one of the managers of the Food Cupboard, said the number of people that the Cupboard serves has increased since it started operation in 1989. Many are people who are working one or more minimum-wage job or are elderly or disabled and can’t work, Sheskey said.

“We had one family that came in December. The wife works two part-time jobs and the husband works two part-time jobs and they have two kids but it’s not enough,” Sheskey said, noting the family lives in a trailer in Nelsonville.

Joyce Smith, 70, of Nelsonville had her son drive her to the Cupboard that Saturday. She has some relatives in the area as well as her son and daughter in town so she has some support. Otherwise, she’s retired and living on food stamps and a Social Security check to help her get by.

“I think it (the Cupboard) is important to everybody in need, the way the economy is now…” Smith said. “It’s hard for people. Especially the elderly (people).”

FRECH SAID poverty is so persistent in Athens County for a variety of reasons, but one big contributor is a gradual reduction and loss of the “safety net” offered to people.

“Food stamp benefits have been cut over the last four or five years rather severely, both in the amount that people get and in the eligibility,” Frech said, while tax assistance has almost “disappeared” in Ohio.

“…Those loss of safety-net benefits have pulled millions of millions of dollars out of the pockets of low-income families and communities,” he said.

Asti Payne, development and community relations coordinator with the Southeast Ohio Foodbank, said that while “unemployment is going down,” the makeup of county jobs is trending toward lower-paying jobs and part-time work.

“Couple this with increasing costs to buy groceries, high utility bills and health-care costs, and families are being forced to make tough choices (i.e. buy food or turn the heat on in their home knowing they will have a larger bill next month),” Payne said.

Payne said that the local food banks “need advocates.”

She asked community members to call their state representatives and support the Ohio Foodbank network’s request of state legislature to add $30 million per year to support hunger relief in the FY2018-2019 state budget, and to donate their time or money to their local foodbanks.

“…Monetary donations make a big impact because of our buying power and affiliation with Feeding America. For every dollar we receive, we can provide 5 meals,” Payne said.