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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