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George Zeller, Cleveland Economist Who Tracked Poverty, Dies At 71

In this undated photo from his website, George Zeller listens to a radio broadcast at Gifford Pinchot State Park in Pennsylvania. [georgezeller.com]
In this undated photo from his website, George Zeller listens to a radio broadcast at Gifford Pinchot State Park in Pennsylvania.

George Zeller, the meticulous Cleveland economist who tracked the fortunes of Northeast Ohio’s poorest residents through industrial upheaval and painstaking recovery, died over the weekend after a fire at his West Side home. He was 71.

The blaze was an accidental electrical fire, Cleveland Division of Fire spokesman Lt. Michael Norman said.

For decades, Zeller was the go-to voice for journalists looking to illuminate Ohio’s economic picture as the state weathered recessions and job realignments. In recent years, he pored over unemployment, wage and sales tax data in reports emailed to news media and others, tracing the state’s path out of the Great Recession.

While many found cause to celebrate Ohio’s recovery after 2008, Zeller bemoaned its laggard pace. In one 2014 interview with ideastream, he decried the prospect of ending extended unemployment benefits as many workers remained jobless.

“So what did we do to help these workers?” Zeller asked rhetorically. “Nothing! We told them, ‘Go get a job, even though you can’t find one, we don’t have enough jobs for you, but go get a job.’ We blamed this on them, and it was not their fault.”

If Zeller’s prognoses were often gloomy, it was because he focused intently on the Ohioans whose boats did not rise with the tide. Now, as the country climbs out of a cavernous pandemic recession, the economic stance of many in Washington, D.C., seems to have come around to his point of view.

“I think a lot of economists agree with George Zeller, that we should have done more, that we should have invested more [after 2008],” said John Corlett, the director of the Center for Community Solutions, a local think tank. “Because we left too many people behind and it took too long for the economy to recover – and for some, it never recovered.”

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Zeller kept a close eye on neighborhood-level poverty statistics as a senior researcher for the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland. When the center laid Zeller off amid budget shortfalls in 2005, he found a new perch from which to analyze economic data at the Center for Community Solutions.

“He was one of the leading poverty fighters in Cleveland and the state of Ohio,” said Zach Schiller, research director for liberal-leaning think tank Policy Matters Ohio. “And he fought poverty and inequality with data. And George was a stickler for using data, but using it well and wisely.”

Zeller also was a dedicated public transit rider and advocate, serving on the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s community advisory committee.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, RTA’s newly elected president, Rev. Charles Lucas, recalled how Zeller regularly gave trustees updates on sales tax collections – the transit agency’s primary revenue source.

“You could always tell when the sales tax was down, because he would get up shaking his head, [saying], ‘This is bad news!’ and he would pass it out,” Lucas said.

When Zeller was not crunching economic figures, he was listening for radio broadcasts from afar. An avid shortwave radio enthusiast, he wrote a column on covert broadcasts for The Monitoring Times, a radio hobbyist publication.

He regularly attended the Winter SWL Fest, a convention for shortwave devotees, said Rich D’Angelo, a longtime friend and the director of the North American Shortwave Association. At the conference, Zeller hosted a well-attended panel on unlicensed pirate radio.

“George had a quirky side to him,” D’Angelo said. “He enjoyed the – I’ll call it the inventiveness – of pirate radio stations, who would try to avoid being tracked down by the FCC and would put entertainment programs on the air to attract a little niche crowd of listeners.”

One undated photo on Zeller’s website shows him sitting in front of a radio in a cabin at Gifford Pinchot State Park in Pennsylvania. There, away from electrical interference, Zeller and friends could tune in to shortwave broadcasts from around the world, D’Angelo said.

“We would go to these remote locations in the cabin, and maybe four or five of us, and spend several hours a day listening to radio stations, as well as swapping stories,” D’Angelo said. “We used to do that just for the sake of doing it.”

A dedicated baseball fan, Zeller would travel the country to watch games, D’Angelo said. The late economist kept in touch with D’Angelo regularly, sending him news tidbits about FirstEnergy, where D’Angelo formerly worked.

“His warmth and his friendship are two things that I instantly missed,” D’Angelo said. “Just the thought of a phone call from him periodically – just kind of all disappeared instantly.”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.