Athens County is an intriguing place. On one hand, it is nestled in the rolling hills of southeast Ohio, embodying the rich beauty and serenity of the region. In some ways is distinctly isolated and lacking. Athens County is the poorest county in the state. According to the Ohio Department of Development, over 2,000 families in Athens County were living under the poverty level in 2010. In recent census, numbers released at the beginning of the year show that 32.8 percent of the population in Athens County is living underneath the poverty level, almost 10 percent higher than the closest county in Ohio, and more than twice the national average. “Columbus… That’s about the only places that jobs are. There’s none around here. Not even hardly working at fast food because most of them are taken. Delivering pizza… Those jobs are taken, because not many of the normal family people around here can work part time. They have to have a full-time job with some kinds of benefit for their family,” Phil Jones, of The Plains stated. This problem is nothing new to Athens County. For decades, the county has struggled with the lack of well paying jobs, and the need for government food assistance is increasing. Almost 19 percent of the county’s population receives government food assistance, according to a 2010 report by The Athens Foundation. The county is seeing a transition from the working poor to the unemployed.
One trend that is newly increasing is the percentage of families consisting of a married couple and their children living below the poverty line. On Roy Avenue in The Plains, there is a quaint but crowded three-bedroom house with one of these families almost permanently inside of it. Phil and Lori Jones moved into this house after their marriage, and several children from their previous marriages moved in with them. With no nearby prospects of employment, Phil was forced to get a job as a trucker with a company based in Wooster, Ohio, nearly three hours away.
After an accident that left Jones with several back problems, he is no longer able to work to support his family. The household consists of 3 bedrooms and 7, soon to be 8, family members inside. “Very rarely have I met a friend who will always be around you, family can do that,” Jones stated. Living very closely with other family members this household has become a support system that is all but unheard of in modern American families. According to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, “There was also a major rise in “empty nest” households, with elderly couples no longer having resident children of any age. Extended family arrangements were progressively disappearing for the majority of the population.” The Jones’ residence is anything but an empty nest. Lori Jones’ mother, Lynda Mash, will be leaving the Hickory Creek of Athens nursing home to join the household after the restroom is restored from damages caused by a tornado that struck the village a little over a year ago. Before the storm hit, Mash was living with her daughter and stepson in the Roy Avenue house. Because the storm left the house uninhabitable, she was forced to move into her biological son’s house nearby. While she stayed at her son’s house, she was not receiving adequate care, and the family decided that it was necessary in order to keep her alive to move her into the nursing home. While Medicaid and Medicare, along with welfare support, the entire cost of the nursing home is being taken care of. This span of assistance will soon end as her New Marshfield property will be at risk of seizure due to the accumulating cost of her caretaking. Mash, 63, suffers from dementia along with other minor health impairments. Her daughter and stepson visit her daily until she will be able to move back into the house.
With a lack of funding and jobs, Athens, Ohio continues to struggle with its increasing poverty rate, and it doesn’t appear to be on track for improvement. With a new state budget, which includes a $1.4 billion reduction in Medicaid, and healthcare providers, the poor and the middle class are expected to feel the financial impact. Earlier this year when the budget was released, in Athens alone there were cutbacks of $974,320. The cutbacks mean that fewer government-funded jobs are available, particularly those in school systems, government offices, and county operated employment. The county relies on income tax for future funding, therefore the outlook is grim for the region overcome by unemployment.
The Jones family is just on of the 2,173 families in Athens county whom are living below the poverty level. Many of these families are constantly in search of the answers to their financial burden. The answer to the Jones’ financial problems is a complicated and stressful matter, yet the feeling of optimism, and family reliance is strong within the household and the bond between them in the good times and the bad is as visible as the broken toys in the yard, and the bills and cigarette butts in the garbage.