What Drives Poverty in Ohio?

As part of our double bottom line mission, Scioto is carrying out a multi-year research project on five key aspects of well-being. With the conclusion of this summer’s cost-benefit analysis on the earned income tax credit, we are shifting from a focus on economic growth to a focus on poverty.

As we started our 2018-2019 research on economic growth, we carried out a study of Ohio’s economy using the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) framework, a “GDP+” framework that incorporates environmental and social costs along with traditional economic indicators to gauge economic growth. This study served as a baseline by which to gauge the future economic growth and policy interventions to improve the economy.

As we start working on poverty, we already have two detailed poverty reports at our disposal, the Development Services Agency’s Ohio Poverty Report and the Ohio Association of Community Action Agency’s (OACAA) State of Poverty in Ohio, both published in the past six months. These two poverty reports provide a plethora of data on poverty, food insecurity, housing cost burdens, and other income-related measures disaggregated by race and geography. Between these two reports, we can find most measures of poverty addressed, with the notable exception of relative poverty.

One of the most valuable parts of the OACAA report is a large table with detailed information on the state of poverty in Ohio’s 88 counties. This set of 88 datapoints can help us explore a litany of questions about poverty in Ohio. For this post, let us make just a few surface-level observations about the state of poverty in Ohio.

  1. Poverty is not primarily urban in Ohio.

Using a standard linear regression, there is little relationship between population size and poverty level in Ohio counties. Ohio’s largest counties fall fairly close to the average poverty rates and Ohio’s large number of small- and medium-size counties generally range between 5 and 20% like the larger counties.


Above, we highlight three reference counties, Franklin County, a large, urban, medium-high poverty county, Delaware County, a medium-large, suburban, low poverty county, and Athens County, a small, rural, high poverty county.

2. Poverty is not primarily minority-driven in Ohio.

Just as we found little relationship between population size and poverty rates, we also find little relationship between what percentage minority a county is and its poverty rate. Poverty rates show more stability with more minority-heavy counties and are slightly higher in those counties, but hardly significantly higher and lower than many small and medium-size counties.

3. Poverty is weakly related to population growth since 2012

About 15% of the variation in poverty rates in the state can be explained by population growth since 2012. It should be noted that causation could run either way in this relationship: while population growth could mean a stronger economy and more opportunities for residents, it also could be a result of lower poverty levels as people move to opportunity.


Also notable here, though, is outlier counties. Athens County is an outlier in almost every graph we plot because its poverty rates are so incredibly high. A contributor to this is Ohio University: the Census Bureau estimates the Athens County poverty rate would have been 5-10 percentage points lower from 2012 to 2016 if off-campus college students were excluded from the poverty calculation. That being said, even factoring in this adjustment leaves Athens as the highest at worst or one of the highest at best in poverty rates statewide. This is especially surprising considering Athens County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

Franklin County is also impacted by large numbers of college students, though the Census Bureau estimates the impact is only worth 0 to 2.5 percentage points. Even factoring this adjustment in, Franklin County’s poverty rate is much higher than its population growth rate would suggest it should be.

These three tests give us a small peek into what drives county-level poverty in the state of Ohio. Over the next year, we at Scioto Analysis will be working to uncover more of what drives poverty in the state as well as exploring alternative measures of poverty such as supplemental measures and relative poverty measures. If you are interested in talking about state-level poverty and approaches to reduce it, please email me. I’m always looking to connect with folks who are working to understand and reduce poverty at the state and local level.

Thank you to Tong Zhou for data manipulation support that contributed to this post.