By John A. Begala //
For all the forces that conspire to separate and divide “big city” and “small town,” and all that is written about Ohio as a microcosm of the nation’s “culture wars,” Ohio’s small hub towns share many of the same characteristics and challenges as the state’s eight major cities. In a recent report for The Center for Community Solutions, Big City Problems in Ohio’s Small Towns, I analyzed economic, social and health data for 47 of these communities, which are located in about half of Ohio’s 88 counties – towns that are centers of civic, social, and economic life for areas extending beyond their borders.
With a combined population of 1,170,570, or 10 percent of the state as a whole, communities included in the study have one or more major institutions that establish or contribute to its “hub” status. Most are seats of county government (34 of 47); 20 are home to a four-year public or private college or university campus (five public and 15 private); and most (35) have at least one general hospital.
Here are some of the findings in the report:
- Manufacturing provides 17.5 percent of the jobs in towns without a four-year college, and 16.3 percent in private college towns, nearly double the proportion in Ohio’s big cities or the nation as a whole.
- Median annual family earnings in towns without a four-year college are considerably below those for the state as a whole, more closely approximating those of Ohio’s big cities than similarly sized college towns or suburbs. At $ 46,860, they are less than 60 percent of suburban communities.
- For the years 2010 – 2014, Medicare and Medicaid insured about one-third of all Ohioans, but in small towns without a four-year college, these public programs insured 43.5 percent of the population, a higher proportion than the 38.5 percent in Ohio’s eight big cities.
- Employment opportunities in small hub towns and cities depend heavily on public spending, not only in public enterprises like county government and schools, but as a major revenue source for public and private universities and hospitals (for example, Medicare, Medicaid and other public programs constitute about 65 percent of hospital revenue in the United States).
- The proportion of the civilian labor force employed in all occupations for small hub town and cities during the first five years of this decade averaged 51.9 percent, lagging the state as a whole (57.7 percent), big cities (55.5 percent), and suburbs 63.4 percent).
- Over 16 percent of working age adults in towns without a four-year college are disabled, a higher proportion than in Ohio’s big cities (about 14 percent) and one-third more than the state as a whole.
- Only 15 percent of those age 25 or older in towns without a four-year institution of higher education have college degrees, compared to about 25 percent in big cities and the state as a whole.
- Public spending per pupil for primary and secondary education is significantly less in towns without a four-year college than college towns, big cities, suburbs, or the state as a whole.
- Thirty-four percent of children in towns without a four-year college live in poverty, compared to 23 percent statewide. Children in heartland towns are almost four times more likely to live in poverty than suburban children.
- Almost 75 percent of primary and secondary school students in towns without a four-year college participate in the Federal School Lunch Program, which covers both below- and near-poverty students from families with incomes up to 185 percent of the poverty level. This exceeds the statewide rate by over 25 percent, more closely approximating the 92 percent participation rate of Ohio’s eight big cities.
- Teenage birth rates in towns without four-year colleges are 31 births per thousand to 15 to 19 year olds, higher than big cities, college towns or suburbs, and nearly double the statewide rate.
- While violent crime rates in small hub towns and cities are about the same as the state as a whole, and considerably below those of big cities, property crime rates in towns without a four-year college, at 41 per thousand, are nearly as high as rates in big cities (45 per thousand).
These and related findings strongly suggest the potential for common policy and civic capacity building initiatives between large and small municipalities. These ought to include federal and state support for investments in infrastructure supporting economic redevelopment, for example, updated water and sewer systems and improved multi-modal transportation. Yet, concurrently, it is apparent that the enormous patchwork of federal and state revenue sharing with local governments could benefit from comprehensive reviews, reshaping or eliminating those that are ineffective or of marginal efficacy, and redirecting dollars to strengthening local economies.
Among the more specific initiatives deserving consideration in Ohio would be investments in youth, including vastly increased state support for summer jobs, increasing state support for evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention, and targeting safety, health and social services from various public systems and jurisdictions (mental health, public health, public safety, protective services) to effect change within small areas within urban neighborhoods and small towns.
About the Author
John Begala is an executive, strategist, and community leader with a wide range of experience in both the public and nonprofit sectors. Mr. Begala served as Executive Director of Cleveland, Ohio’s Center for Community Solutions from 1998 through 2004, and again from 2008 through 2014. Prior to then, he served as a senior executive for several health care institutions, member of the Ohio House of Representatives and City Council of Kent, Ohio, and adjunct professor for several Ohio universities. His publications on public policy include, most recently, “Big City Problems in Ohio’s Small Towns.”