For authors of 2016 Athens County Report, vibrant community provides hope in the face of challenges

Daniel Kington
November 15, 2016

Athens County is well-known for being the poorest county in Ohio, with almost a third of residents living below the poverty line. It is also one of the most unequal, with the top 20 percent of earners taking in 6.9 times that of the bottom 20 percent, compared to the statewide metric of 4.8 percent. Other prominent issues in the county include food access, adequate housing, opioid addiction and water quality.

Produced by the Athens Foundation in partnership with the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, the 2016 Athens County Report thoroughly documents these issues, among others, as summarized by the Athens NEWS. However, the authors of the report, Kelli Schoen and Kate Leeman, both research associates at the Voinovich School, point out that while many of their findings are disappointing, their analysis is not entirely bleak. Instead, they say, the Athens community is well-positioned to tackle these issues, with many projects already underway, and there is plenty of room for hope.

Six years ago, the Athens Foundation commissioned its first county-wide report, which has informed much of the group’s work to enhance the quality of life for people in the region. Susan Urano, executive director of the Athens Foundation, stressed the change-oriented nature of the group’s work.

“We use this report to inform our strategies for working in Athens County,” Urano said. “The foundation not only makes grants to local organizations to address some of these issues and opportunities, but also to direct our leadership work in the community.”

To get a better idea of where to focus their work, the foundation decided it would be important to update this information. The first time the foundation produced a report of this nature, they worked with a Master of Public Administration (MPA) student, and, according to Urano, “she did an excellent job.” Consequently, there was no question that the Voinovich School would be involved again this time around. Two MPA students, now graduated, conducted the initial research, and Leeman and Schoen compiled their findings and wrote the report. Meanwhile a student in the School of Visual Communication, which partnered with the Voinovich School to produce the report, created infographics, and Lindsey Siegrist, Voinovich School creative designer, designed the layout for the report.

“It was truly a collaborative effort,” Urano said.

Both Leeman and Schoen praised the leadership of the Athens Foundation for their willingness to devote the organization to this sort of work.

“Many Athens County residents struggle to secure the basics—adequate housing, healthy food, reliable transportation, and access to quality medical care,” Schoen said. “I appreciate that the Athens Foundation is undertaking this effort not just to inform philanthropic investment, but to increase public awareness of the challenges that many county residents face on a daily basis.”

According to Schoen, raising public awareness was a vital component of the report because numerous figures conveyed in the document might come as a surprise to many in the region.

“The numbers in the report may seem surprising to some because in the City of Athens we can be insulated from the reality that many Athens County residents face,” Schoen said.

Leeman noted that the geographical distribution of wealth in the county, as alluded to by Schoen, not only insulates many in the city from the broader county population, but also makes living in poverty in Athens all the more difficult.

“Because of the University presence, we’ve ended up with inflated housing costs in the neighborhoods closest to public transportation and most of the jobs in the county,” she said. “That can make it particularly difficult for low-income families that live and work in this area.”

Despite the challenges of access and awareness raised by the Athens geography, Leeman said she hopes this report can shed some light on the seriousness of the problems in the county for those who are unaware and ignite change in the region.

“The idea is to start conversations with community leaders about what the issues are that we really want to focus on and address,” Leeman said. “One example would be the percentage of infants born addicted to opioids. As bad as that statistic is, it represents a manageable number of women who could be provided with services to help them deal with their drug addiction in ways that don’t compromise their infants’ health. If the community could get organized, identify a few key goals and work towards them in some concerted effort, I think that we could accomplish those goals.”

Leeman pointed out that the report also describes the often overlooked but successful efforts of many actors in the region to strengthen the economy, restore the environment and improve people’s livelihoods. In Leeman’s eyes, with so many forces working to improve conditions here, the county “has an incredible opportunity.”

For instance, in an attempt to tackle the problem of opioid use, the Maternal Opiate Medical Support Project provides counseling and treatment to pregnant women and mothers battling addiction. Since 2014, the program has treated 106 women. Meanwhile, in response to the high levels of poverty in Athens County, the Women’s Fund was launched in 2006 to promote philanthropy among women and to help fund projects that empower women in the region. Combatting the related issue of lacking affordable housing is Habitat for Humanity of Southeast Ohio, which works both to build new, affordable homes for county residents as well as to tear down dilapidated housing.

All of these projects are occurring within the context of a community that clearly values sustainable businesses, as indicated by the county’s many organic farms and food producers. Environmental restoration is another emphasis, demonstrated by community clean ups led by groups such as Rural Action.

“We have a vibrant community of people who have lived here for a long time and really know the area, and know what’s likely to succeed here, and then we also have all these folks that are coming in through the University, with specialty knowledge and energy to work,” Leeman said. “We have everything we need right here.”