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Politically impoverished

| Saturday, July 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

CLEVELAND

When the Orlando family built a new bakery in this city's Kinsman neighborhood in 1980, they were assured by city officials that an industrial park soon would follow the family's trailblazing investment in a blighted neighborhood.

“You see this parking lot across the street?” said Chet “Sonny” Orlando, pointing to a paved lot filled with employees' and visitors' cars. “Nothing but empty crack houses there — we bought those too, tore them down and built this.”

Outside Orlando Baking Co., the aroma of fresh breads and rolls mixed with rosemary, garlic and fennel could cause the most dedicated dieter to lose his will.

That contrasts starkly with the poverty encircling the grid of numbered streets leading from the interstate to the guarded, gated bakery that employs 40 family members and 400 local residents.

The Orlando family — whose 140-year history as bakers began in Italy and moved to America a century ago — works hard to make their community better: They donate surplus bread to a local food bank; they hire people from the neighborhood. They're good stewards.

Yet the staggering number of deteriorated houses, condemned buildings, rows of vacant lots, and old industrial brownfields used as garbage dumps is impossible to ignore.

Cleveland — like many Rust Belt cities slowly recovering from the industrial collapse that began in the 1970s and '80s — has a poverty problem. It regularly ranks among America's poorest big cities, with per-capita income at just $17,000 a year.

But poverty isn't just a problem in old Midwestern industrial cities such as Cleveland, Detroit or Gary, Ind.

Ninety percent of the country's poverty is dispersed across rural counties, where social services and safety nets are nonexistent or hard to access.

A survey released last month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation showed an alarming number of U.S. families struggling with poverty; nationwide, 23 percent of children lived in poverty-stricken families in 2011, the fourth year in a row that America's poverty levels have increased.

As President Obama last week began yet another “pivot” on jobs (at least his 19th since taking office), his administration laid out rhetoric blaming Republicans “for dropping the ball.”

But many Americans, including many of the nearly 12 million still looking for work, are tired of such finger-pointing, tired of seeing neighborhoods and people fall into despair, tired of the crime that follows such decline.

Washington, for all intents and purposes, has failed the poor. Republicans do appear to be unresponsive toward the problem — but Democrats aren't so crazy about claiming ownership of it, either.

Why? Because there's no political payoff.

By sheer definition, the poor do not donate to campaigns, so they have no influence with a political system corrupted by insane amounts of money.

Money doesn't just talk in our system, “it shouts,” according to Purdue University political science professor Bert Rockman. “A large part of why Washington ignores our poverty problem is that poor people disproportionately do not vote and, certainly, they have no money to contribute.”

When federal dollars are spent to eradicate poverty, the money mostly becomes a boondoggle for special interests that know how to ply influence in administrative implementation. Or it helps to grease the corrupt gear-works of machine politics.

Catherine Wilson, associate professor of public administration at Villanova University, said the United States needs to take an honest look at its systemic causes of poverty and we are long overdue for a national call to action.

Standing in the foyer of Orlando Baking last week, a few miles from where three women were found dead inside abandoned buildings in East Cleveland, Ohio Gov. John Kasich said those murders were part of the heartbreaking results of poverty in such communities.

Poverty “is kind of at the core of it to me,” he said, adding: “The best way to tackle poverty is to give people hope by giving them a sense that they can get work.”

Outside, a young man walked toward the bakery after getting off a bus a few blocks away. “This place saved me,” he said, placing a white jacket and hair net on as he prepared to start his shift.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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