Face of Franklin County Poverty Changes

Imelda Santos runs the Our Lady of Guadalupe food pantry that serves a burgeoning Hispanic population.
Imelda Santos runs the Our Lady of Guadalupe food pantry that serves a burgeoning Hispanic population.

The face of poverty is changing in Franklin County. A new study finds that Blacks and Hispanics are three times more likely to live in poverty than Whites or Asians; that one in eight persons in the county is impoverished; and that impoverished families are relocating toward the Columbus outer belt. The results were presented Wednesday at a forum of social services officials.

Perhaps the most astonishing finding in the report is this: Nearly half of Franklin County’s female-headed families with young children live in poverty. In contrast, the poverty rate for married-couple families is only around 3%. Another surprising finding: Hispanics are among the fastest growing populations that live in poverty.

That’s no surprise to Imelda Santos who coordinates a food pantry just off Valley View Drive on the city’s west side.

“This is Our Lady of Guadalupe, part of Catholic Social Services,” Santos says. “I believe that this is the only choice food pantry in Columbus that is targeting the Hispanic community.”

Though it’s open to anyone in need, Catholic or not, Santos says her clientele is mostly Hispanic. It’s located on the west side, Santos says, because it’s near a large Hispanic population. The pantry has already provided food aid to 700 people in the first 3 months of 2007.

“The person comes and they’re able to hand-select items that they are familiar with and that they like and enjoy like rice and black beans and pinto beans; items that they rarely find in other food pantries.”

Annabell Perez is shopping for her family of five including three teenage children. She’s unemployed and her husband’s job is affected by the weather.

“He’s a construction worker but sometimes when it rains he’s sent home and those are the days that it hurts us,” Perez says. “It’s just hard to stretch out that dollar that you don’t have to go buy food and this is where Catholic Services comes in and helps out a lot and I really appreciate that.”

There’s a growing number of working poor, says Roberta Garber, executive director of the group Community Research Partners which did the study. She says the last recession caused the loss of higher paying manufacturing jobs while service sector jobs are growing around the outer belt.

“You have people who are living throughout the county who are taking those service sector jobs not making as much as they could,” Garber says. “And we have poor people now living among us; the people who wait on us in restaurants and serve us in stores, and take care of our elderly parents. Many are working poor living all throughout the county.”

The study was conducted for the Columbus Franklin County Community Action Task Force, part of a multi-year effort to design a new Community Action Agency. It replaces the old CMACAO which was $5 million in debt when it was dissolved in 2005. In her presentation Wednesday, Roberta Garber compared Columbus with 15 other similar U.S. cities.

“In terms of poverty, in comparison to these 15 other areas, we’re not looking so good,” she says. “So we’re doing a lot worse than what we would consider our competitor cities around the country in terms of poverty rate.”

A fully functional community action agency won’t be operating until sometime in 2009. Meanwhile people like the Annabell Perez and her family will continue to struggle to get by.

“It’s very hard,” Perez says. “It’s stressful. But we get by. We’re Catholic so we believe a lot in God and we just think that before things get worser they get better.”