Ohio’s Missing Debate

Authored By 
Rahul Singh

Ohioans will vote for a new governor this fall. But according to an announcement, incumbent Gov. John Kasich and his Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald will never face each other in public debate before the Nov. 4 election.

The opposing camps’ inability to agree on a format will mean the first gubernatorial election in Ohio without a debate in 36 years. But perhaps Ohioans should not be surprised; the lack of debate between political candidates is actually consistent with the striking omission of certain issues from public discourse.

Social mobility in Ohio’s cities is among the lowest in the country. In this state, few children escape poverty. If you look at the 50 biggest cities in the Unites States and then rank them by rates of upward mobility, you will find that Ohio is home to three cities at the bottom: Cleveland at number 41, Columbus at number 45, and Dayton at number 47. As a state, Ohio has much lower rates of upward mobility than our neighbor Pennsylvania — suggesting that statewide policies, the kind that a new governor could reform, are at least part of the story.

How are we measuring upward mobility? In this ranking, calculated by a team of economists at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, using tax-return data, upward mobility is defined as the odds of starting from the bottom fifth and reaching the top fifth: the percent of children growing up in the poorest households who go on to earn enough to join the richest. Phrased another way, it is the fraction of children who achieve the American Dream. This fraction in Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton is lower than in any developed country.

Ohio’s promise of equal opportunity, then, needs to be restored. The same economists identify a number of social factors that are statistically correlated to upward mobility, which in turn may guide state-level policy. The five most important factors that are associated with low mobility on the community level are: family instability, low-performing primary schools, residential segregation, low social capital and income inequality. And it turns out that labor market conditions, migration and access to higher education do not matter as much as people think.

So a story that Ohio’s gubernatorial candidates should be discussing is last week’s opening of a new apartment building in Cleveland. Housing First, a public-private coalition, on Wednesday unveiled its ninth building for chronically homeless individuals. The highly successful initiative has reduced chronic homelessness in Cuyahoga County by 73 percent, surely contributing to the household stability of Ohio families and hence giving those children a fairer chance at success. Housing First sets an example that Ohio’s next governor should seek to not only support but also replicate.

Another absent discussion concerns early-childhood care. Nationally, 28 percent of 4-year-old children are enrolled in state-funded pre-kindergarten; in Ohio, that number is only 2 percent. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland signed a state budget in July 2009 that cut funding for early childhood by $150 million over two years. That meant the end of The Early Childhood Initiative, which provided full-day preschool for 13,000 children. Although FitzGerald has offered a policy proposal, early-childhood care — which combats many disadvantages — has not been in the spotlight.

In short, the central issue that this political season has ignored is Ohio’s especially pernicious cycle of poverty. Research suggests the underlying social factors for policymakers to address, including family instability and inadequate primary schools. Housing for homeless individuals and preschool for young children are just two examples of policies that could effect meaningful change. If Ohio plans to restore its promise of equal opportunity, policies like these must be at the center of public discourse and gubernatorial debate.

This piece was originally published as an op-ed in Cleveland Plain Dealer on September 23, 2014 and is reposted with permission. Rahul Singh is a senior at Yale studying economics and mathematics and an ISPS Director’s Fellow in Domestic Policy.

Area of study 
Poverty & Inequality