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Archive for June, 2009

We just got this message from our friends at PUSH:

We need volunteers!

One of PUSH’s national partners, National People’s Action, is bringing the Federal Reserve to Buffalo!

With millions of regular people caught in the grip of foreclosures, ballooning mortgages and predatory loans the Fed is traveling to cities hard-hit by the economic crisis to hear about the urgent need of reform and PUSH wants everyone there!

We need boots on the ground and people on the phones to get the turnout we need at this meeting. If you think you can canvass or phone-bank with us beginning on Monday, June 29th through July 15th, please give us a call at 716-884-0356 or shoot me an email, harrison@pushbuffalo.org

If you’d like to canvass, please show up to the office at 4 and if you’re interested in phone-banking, show up at 5.

The neighborhood needs to turn out to meet the Fed because we need access to credit, banks that invest in our communities, and green jobs that pay us a living wage! Real People have Real Power! Again, please lend us a hand canvassing or phone-banking, we would love to see you.

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The Subprime Crisis has helped force thousands of Americans into homelessness and it is hugely important that the Fed steps in to reform.  The National Coalition for the Homeless recently released  a report that details the effects of the Subprime Crisis on homelessness:

Foreclosure to Homelessness 2009: the Forgotten Victims of the Subprime Crisis

We need you to help bring people out to tell the Fed how the Subprime Crisis has affected people in Buffalo.  Volunteer to canvass or phonebank and try to bring anyone you know who has been affected by predatory lending.  The meeting is:

July 16th, 6pm
Trinity Episcopal Church
371 Delaware Ave, Buffalo

They’ll be here soon so it’s time to get moving!

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At last week’s Great Lakes Metros Summit there was much discussion about the potential benefits of developing high-speed rail line that would connect NYC to Toronto along with a number of upstate cities including Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. The line could produce jobs associated with maintaining the line as well as attract industry that would create more jobs. An electric line would also be one way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from cars and create a more sustainable transportation infrastructure not totally dependent on cheap oil. The high-speed rail was applauded by all and local assemblyman Sam Hoyt in particular who is a strong supporter of developing a rail line between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

High-speed rail connecting NYC and Toronto would certainly address the transportation needs of people who frequently travel between NYC, Toronto, and the upstate New York cities. And there is definitely a need for a more sustainable transportation option for this corridor. As cheap oil becomes scarcer and the costs associated with traveling by private automobiles increase, an electric rail-way will become a very valuable asset. The idea is very logical and has a lot of merit.

But does it address poverty?

As mentioned above there is definitely a chance that the line will create jobs associated with the construction and maintenance of the line and it could attract new industry to the area. An increase in the number of living-wage jobs available directly addresses one of the major causes of poverty.

However if you ask the poor and homeless themselves what they’re greatest transportation needs are, it become clear that inter-city rail is not their highest concern. According to the Homeless Alliances’ report Left Behind: How Difficulties with Transportation are a Roadblock to Self-Sufficiency, the greatest transportation concern cited by Buffalo’s poor and homeless is limited suburban routes (49.4%). The most common difficulty respondents cited was the inability to pay for the use of public transportation (53.9%). The second most common difficulty was that the respondent had to turn down a job due to lack of route (42.1%). Respondents also cited a long commute of over an hour as a major concern (40.6%).

Obviously the biggest transportation concern facing those living in poverty in Buffalo is a lack of affordable transportation within the Buffalo metropolitan area. People are not able to make it to jobs, they miss appointments, and are not even able to afford the cost of public transportation when it may be of use. Getting to Rochester or Toronto really fast is not their biggest concern.

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During the Poverty Challenge we received a ton of interesting thoughts and comments in the Poverty Challenge Blog as well as from people who have previously taken the Challenge.  In an interview for this years Poverty Challenge, Rev. Drew Ludwig talks about an experience he had last year while taking the Challenge:

For those of you who can’t watch the video, Rev. Ludwig talks about how he went to see a friend in the hospital.  His friend really wanted a coke, something that you couldn’t get in the hospital, and Rev. Ludwig was presented with a moral dilemma.  Buying a coke for his friend would probably put him over budget and mean that he couldn’t eat dinner but at the same time this was such a small request that it was hard to turn down.  Living on poverty level budget meant that Rev. Ludwig had to agonize over even very small acts of charity, something that you may never have to think about if you have a higher income.

Another story comes from Sr. Sharon Goodremote.  While thinking about how she will have to change things in order to stick to a poverty level budget she was confronted with a dilemma much like the one Rev. Ludwig had to face.  A Sister she lived with needed a ride somewhere but this would mean getting more gas for her car, which would put her way over her poverty level budget.  She thought:

Normally, there would be not thought – of course I can do that.  But because tomorrow I am living in poverty, my answer would need to be, I can’t help you, because I need to get to work and don’t have the extra money to take you to work.  Or my answer could be, yes, I’ll take you to work – knowing that I wouldn’t be able to have lunch tomorrow in order to have enough for gas after helping her.”

Like Rev. Ludwig she had to make the choice to either help a friend out and blow the poverty level budget or not help a friend, even if it was just giving someone a ride.  For those living at the poverty level this is a daily dilemma as many people living in poverty, especially those living in the ghettos, have friends or family living in poverty who could use some help.  Financially the person must decline requests for charity or risk getting farther behind but many times impoverished people go ahead and help people out even if it sets them farther back.  Sr. Goodremote noted this tendency of low-income people to give even when they have very little:

It is interesting to me that I immediately thought that I would just say no, yet knowing people who live in poverty are often more generous than people who “have”, I decided not to have lunch tomorrow so I could be of help to someone else.  I am grateful for the example of the people I know who live in poverty who are willing to go that extra mile for others.

Sr. Goodremote is not alone in noticing this trend.  Reading change.org’s Poverty in America blog I saw this post by Leigh Graham who found an article in the Miami Herald about how according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the poor donate more to charities percentage wise than the extremely wealthy.  Read the full article here.

The article titled “They are more generous — even in hard times” describes how the poorest fifth of Americans gave more than twice as much to charity (4.3% of income) as the wealthiest fifth gave (2.1% of income).  Statistics like these conflict with the dominant stereotypes about poor people being morally bankrupt and “leaching off the system”.  These statistics about charitable giving show that income has nothing to do with a person’s moral character.  It shows the poor actually being statistically more charitable than the wealthy.  This is not to say that the wealthy have less concern for the plight of others but it does help refute claims that the poor are as irresponsible and selfish as many people in society feel that they are.

Stories like the ones from Rev. Ludwig, Sr. Goodremote, and the article from the Miami Herald help challenge the myths and stereotypes surround those in poverty and those who are homeless.  They ask us to review and rethink the ideas we have about impoverished people and open our minds to the idea that income does not dictate moral character.

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A recent Buffalo News article,”Long-empty gas station on Lower West Side to be razed, replaced by Family Dollar“, reports that ECIDA, the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, is providing $300,000 in tax incentives for a $1.25 million project to rehabilitate a former gas station and build a new Family Dollar on the West Side.

The article acknowledges one of the challenges facing poor people without a car: getting to the grocery store.  Placing a retail store like the Family Dollar close to people who do not have access to transportation will certainly help address this issue.  Plus one for ECIDA.

Quotes from the developer said the ECIDA’s incentives are helpful for stimulating small-business projects in economically distressed areas.  “The store is expected to employ 10 to 15 people”. The area is described as economically distressed; in other words poor*.  Why is it poor?   In this part of the city it quickly becomes clear that there are not very many businesses here.  The businesses that are here are predominantly retail and food.  As the Center for Housing Policy’s report Paycheck to Paycheck makes clear, retail and food prep jobs do not pay very much.  In fact retail salespeople, food prep workers, and wait staff cannot affordably own a home or rent a 1BR or 2BR apartment (see the earlier post, “Buffalo: a Cheap Place to Live?” for more info about CHP’s report). The wages available to people in this area are usually barely enough to cover the basic housing costs. A budget that tight is sure to keep a person in poverty and seriously hinder any attempt to get out of poverty.

Of course, it would be tempting to tell people living on the West Side that there are jobs in the area that will pay way more than the crummy jobs available on the West Side.  In fact, Yahoo! will be opening a publicly subsidized plant out near Lockport which should mean about 125 75 new jobs, which you should go apply for.  But as was mentioned earlier in the Buffalo News article, 56% of the households in this neighborhood don’t have a car and the NFTA doesn’t have any bus service out to this area during business hours.  Most public transportation actually doesn’t have service out to the surrounding suburban and rural areas where most of the jobs, like Yahoo!’s, that will get you out of poverty are located (since buses usually run into the city in the morning and back out in the afternoon). Instead, the jobs that most people living in the city can get to are the very low-paying retail and food service jobs.  As stated above, these kinds of jobs are the kind that will keep people in poverty.

ECIDA certainly “[stimulates] small-business projects” with their tax incentives. But it would short-sighted to say that any economic development in an area will bring that area out of poverty. For a people living in the West Side to get out of poverty, they will need jobs that pay decent wages; enough to at least comfortably rent an apartment.

The West Side needs jobs, but not just any jobs.

There is a way that this deal could become much more beneficial to the people on the West Side and really make a dent in the entrenched poverty of the area.  When ECIDA subsidizes a development to bring more jobs into an area, they use public funds.  ECIDA could require that the Family Dollar create jobs that pay enough for a person to comfortably afford a home or apartment.  With a higher income, the 10-15 prospective employees could save up some money and get one step closer to moving out of poverty.

It sounds obvious but one of the most effective ways to ameliorate poverty is an area is to increase incomes by developing jobs that pay fair and decent wages.

Unfortunately there does not appear to be any stipulation that the jobs at the Family Dollar, which are being publicly subsidized, be well-paying jobs. While the deal may appear totally positive for the community (more jobs!) at the surface level, with a little more criticism that is rooted in an understanding that economic inequality (here in the form of low-wage jobs) is a root cause of poverty, the deal appears disappointing. More jobs, but not the kind that will get a person out of poverty.

With requirements that the jobs created pay living wages, the deal may help 10-15 more people in the West Side move out of poverty.   But as it stand the deal subsidizes a corporate project that will do little if anything to bring the residents of the West Side out of poverty. This is another example of policy that does not address the economic inequalities that help cause poverty in Buffalo.

*Repeatedly discussing how poor an area is, is something used by many developers and elected officials when they describe their economic development projects.

Readers are almost knocked over the head with how poor this area is, between all the statistics and political euphemisms for poverty.  It seems that if a developer emphasizes how poor and distressed and desperate an area is, it makes their development sound more and more like a godsend.  Like they’re saying: “Hey, no one’s bothered with this neighborhood for so long and look how ‘economically distressed’ it is.  Any development will be great for the area!”.  And your initial impulse would be: “Yeah we do need development and you’re offering it; we’ll take it!”  But then you think for a minute.  Of course an area like the West Side needs more economic development, but it doesn’t need any old development. It needs jobs that will pay enough for the person to affordably rent an apartment or put a down payment on a mortgage; generally to be able to do the things that will get  a person out of poverty.  To take from a quote from CEJ’s literature, a job should keep you out of poverty, not in it.  The West Side is very impoverished.  But that doesn’t mean that any development in the area will help lift the community out of poverty.

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One of the main purposes of the Poverty Challenge is to dispel myths and stereotypes about homeless and low-income people and shift our attention to the economic and social inequalities that create and perpetuate the grinding poverty in Buffalo.  A dominant message in our society is that poor people are to blame for their poverty.  That they make bad choices and do not try hard enough to get out of poverty.  Hopefully by taking the Challenge, people will be able to see how difficult it is to live in poverty, let alone move out of poverty with out any outside assistance.

Where do we focus if we shift our attention away from poor people being the cause of their own poverty?  One place that we can focus on is the very intimidating and complex issue of economic inequality.  Obviously there are a number of different sources of economic inequality and it is impossible to separate complex social inequalities from these already complex economic inequalities.

But in his second Poverty Challenge blog Aaron Bartley, of PUSH, touches on one source of economic inequality that has been a major part of Buffalo’s long term economic bottoming out:

Today’s General Motors bankruptcy is symbolic to me of the millions of industrial jobs lost in this country over the last forty years, and all the pain and suffering that continues to cause Buffalonians and others.

A recent Buffalo News article also reported the bankruptcy and what this means for GM workers in WNY.  In “Layoffs slated at GM’s Tonawanda plant”, Matt Glynn reports that the General Motors Corp. engine plant in the Town of Tonawanda will likely face layoffs of up to 261 workers.  Layoffs at this plant are not new; in 1989 the plant employed 4,350 people, in 2003 the plant employed 2,003 people, and after this latest round of layoffs the number could go down to 610 workers.

These were jobs that, through the efforts of local unions, had good wages and benefits.  The kind of jobs that helped build the modern American middle class and kept thousands of local families living comfortably with relatively secure futures.

The loss of these jobs has forced thousands of workers into unemployment and as other industries left the area, local workers were left with few options for employment.  Many of the jobs left in the Buffalo area for high school graduates (which is the highest level of education many people can complete because of financial restrictions among other reasons) are low paying, benefit-less, service sector jobs that are often times part-time.

As Bartley pointed out, the GM’s bankruptcy is symbolic.  It means the loss of even more of what’s left of the well-paying jobs that employed thousands during Buffalo’s heyday.  As made clear through the Challenge, losing income (through both unemployment and the replacement of good paying jobs with very low paying jobs) means not being able to eat and pay the bills; it means that one will be forced into poverty.

Economic changes and inequalities like the layoffs at GM plants are a large part of what has made Buffalo the third poorest city in America.  Policy and action in the area must take into considertaion the loss of  well-paying jobs like the ones that GM offered and strive to create more well-paying jobs.

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Greg Plotkin over at change.org’s Poverty in America Blog re-posted an article from the Herald Bulletin that touches on a lot of what the Poverty Challenge was all about.  The article, “Coping With Hard Times: Ambivalence about poverty” by Ashley Walker, examines some of the predominant ways that people view the poor and gives some possible explanations for why many people hold these views.  A very formative idea that guides many people’s thinking about poor people is the “rugged individualist” ideal, which is like a secular translation of the “Protestant work ethic”.  The basic tenet is that “if you work hard, you can make it”.  Walker cites numerous academics who find that this ideology ignores the numerous economic and social barriers to success that many people face and is rarely supported by social science.  A favorite quote in this article comes from Dr. Bruce MacMurray, professor of sociology and criminal justice at Anderson University:

“To suggest that the poor are poor because they are lazy or can’t save money or they are dumb is somewhat self-serving,” MacMurray said. “Those views allow those of us who don’t live in that environment to dismiss it as their problem rather than our problem — to say that they’re responsible for their own failure rather than to say that it stems from the problems of our society.”

In a town that is incredibly segregated, both racially and economically, it is rare for many higher income people to have very much meaningful interaction with lower income people.  The passionate declarations by many higher income people that the 1/3 of Buffalo that is impoverished is lazy, irresponsible, and morally bankrupt is understandable in view of MacMurray’s insight.  These accusations shift the causes of poverty off the economic and social inequalities (which oftentimes benefit the people making these accusations) and onto the poor themselves.

Through the Poverty Challenge we hope that higher income people can begin to get an understanding of at least some of the economic/financial challenges facing poor people.  Struggling through the Poverty Challenge, and seeing prominent political, faith, and community leaders struggle, will hopefully demonstrate how difficult and undesirable living in poverty is.  Obviously this cannot replace face-to-face, meaningful discussion with low-income people themselves but hopefully people will begin to see the accusations about the moral character of the poor as self-serving statements with no basis in social reality.

Once we can shift our focus away from blaming the poor for their poverty, then we can begin to focus on the economic and social inequalities like the dearth of accessible* well-paying jobs and high housing/utility costs, as Buffalo’s Partnership for the Public Good’s 2009 Community Agenda does.

*Accessible both transportation-wise and education-wise.

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According to a recent Buffalo News article the New York Power Authority is working on a deal with Yahoo!, the Internet giant, to bring them into WNY.  The speculated deal would include giving Yahoo! power discounts totaling $101.2 million over the next 15 years.  The plant Yahoo! is planning to build would create 125 jobs, which means that New York Power Authority would be spending $809,940 over the course of the contract for every job created.

A couple of quotes from the article about the potential deal:

  • Referring to the amount being spent on each new job, “‘It’s exceptionally high, even for high-tech,’ said Greg LeRoy, a national expert on economic development subsidy programs.”
  • “‘There are a few other deals we’ve seen over the years in that neighborhood, but it’s stratospheric. It doesn’t have much company,’ said LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.”
  • “‘On a number basis,’ said Power Authority President Richard Kessel, ‘this doesn’t look like the greatest deal in the world, but we can’t look at the numbers alone.’”

Power Authority President Richard Kessel is correct; we can’t just look at the numbers.  We also have to look at what kinds of jobs these are and where they will be located. As far as location, Yahoo! is looking at building its plant in rural areas like Cambria, Lockport or Pembroke.  What kinds of jobs will these be?  An interviewee in the article described these jobs as “high-tech”.  This means they are sure to require at least a bachelor’s degree or some training.

A quick look at the NFTA’s website shows no public transportation to Cambria or Pembroke from Buffalo and no morning bus runs to Lockport from Buffalo. There also does not appear to be any scholarship or training programs for interested but unqualified workers associated with the deal. There will basically be no way for a low-income individual living in Buffalo to get a job at this potential plant if they do not have all the required qualifications and even if they do have the right qualifications, there will be no way for them to get to the job if they do not own a car, which is impossible for most low-income people.

If the deal goes through, this publicly subsidized plant will not create living wage jobs for the 1/3 of Buffalo that lives in poverty.  This is not to say that communities like Cambria, Lockport, and Pembroke don’t need these jobs but could that $101.2 million do more good for more people in our community if it were given to a company that agreed to locate close to the areas that need the jobs most?  To companies that will train some of the city’s thousands of unemployed workers?

If the city, county, or state ever hopes to end poverty and homelessness in Buffalo, it must make poverty its most important focus.  In deals like the one being hashed out with Yahoo!, our administrators and elected officials must ask themselves if huge deals like these will create good jobs close to the communities that need the jobs most.  Looking at the Poverty Challenge Budget it becomes clear that one of the major things that keeps people in poverty is their low-income.  Many of the jobs that are available in the city are service sector jobs that pay very little, are often part-time, and offer few if any benefits.  If the majority of jobs in a community pay poverty-level wages, then the majority of people in that community will stay in poverty.

Another aspect of the Poverty Challenge Budget that is sure to keep people in poverty is transportation.  Using private transportation (or owning a car) will automatically blow your budget and put you into debt.  But most of the decent paying jobs are outside the city, in places where there is little or no viable public transportation.  The job that may help you get out of poverty is then out of reach becasue you can’t afford the transportation to get there and you have to settle for the minimum wage jobs in your neighborhood (which are harder than ever to find becasue of the current recession).

You could go down the list of items and expenses in the Poverty Challenge Budget starting with the low-income (due to the lack of jobs or the existence of only low paying jobs in your community), the high cost of rent/utilities, the cost of transportation, the cost of cell phones (very necessary for prospective employers to call you back) and see all the expenses that keep 1/3 of Buffalo in poverty.  If our public officials ignore the poverty level budget and don’t address the need for living wage jobs, affordable rent, affordable transportation, etc. then thousands of people in Buffalo will continue to be impoverished.

The Yahoo! deal is another decision being made by public officials that does not have ending poverty as a  primary concern or even as any concern at all.  Deals that will create the kinds of jobs that will allow people to get out of poverty must be the ones we consider first if we have any desire to end poverty in Buffalo.  The $101.2 million deal with Yahoo! is a deal that is being created without any concern for the thousands of impoverished people in our community. (more…)

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