Archive for the ‘poverty challenge’ Category

We invite you to join us for the 2010 Buffalo Poverty Challenge!

The Poverty Challenge is an exercise aimed at transforming how our community thinks about poverty and how to end it. Participants can attempt to live on the budget of a minimum wage worker or on the budget of someone at the federal poverty level.

Prominent local politcal, community, and business leaders like Mickey Kearns of Buffalo’s Common Council, Aaron Bartley of PUSH, and the Vukelic family of Try-it Distributing have taken the challenge. Visit www.povertychallenge.com to see their blog posts and videos about the diffculties they faced living at the poverty level.

This year we are partnering with www.WNYmedia.net who will be hosting the Poverty Challenge on their website.

To participate send an email to:


Write “I want to take the Poverty Challenge” in the subject.

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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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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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That may seem like a ridiculous question.  Part of the reason I came to Buffalo was because I thought it was probably the most affordable place to live in the state*.  But the Center for Housing Policy‘s recently released report entitled Paycheck to Paycheck serves to remind us that for many working people, owning a home or even renting a 1BR apartment in Buffalo is unaffordable.

The report compares the wages of 60 occupations with the wages necessary to afford the cost of an average home ($100,000 including all associated costs) or the Fair Market Rent for a one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment in different states and metropolitan areas.  Housing  is usually considered affordable if it amounts to 30% of your budget.  For example, CHP calculates the income needed for a one-bedroom apartment by multiplying the Fair Market Rent for a one bedroom apartment by 3, which would roughly give you the income needed for that month to afford the apartment.  That monthly number is then multiplied by 12 to get the yearly income necessray.

The report found that while the wage necessary to afford a home decreased (much of that having to do with declining home prices) the wages for many occupations, construction-related occupations in particular, still are not high enough to afford a home and in severe cases a two-bedroom apartment.  Fair Market Rents continued to increase in most areas, which is very troubling given the big increases in unemployment and that renting is usually the more affordable option for low-income people.

The homeownerhsip and rental information for Buffalo, a town that most people consider a very cheap place to live, is also very troubling.  Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment increased from $704 in 2008 to $723 in 2009, a 2.7% increase.  Even more disturbing are the number of service sector wages that are not high enough to afford a one or two bedroom apartment, let alone a home.

Consider these graphs which show the income needed to afford a home, one bedroom, or two bedroom apartment in Buffalo along with the incomes of a selection of service sector occupations (which represents a large portion of the employment available in Buffalo):

Annual Income Needed to Afford a Home

homeownership 1

Other occupations that did not earh enough to afford a home included: hairdresser, home health aide, housekeeper, janitor, laundry worker, nursing aid, office clerk, packager, parking lot attendant, receptionist, retail salesperson, school bus driver, security guard, stock clerk, stock mover, telemarketer, and wait staff.


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“Anyone who has struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”

-James Baldwin

Living in poverty not only takes a toll on a person’s emotional and physical health but also on the meager financial resources they may have.  This article from the Washington Post takes a look at some of the ways that the poor end up paying more for basic goods/services than many middle or upper income folks, just because of their lack of money and the (most likely) poor neighborhood they live in.  Being forced to pay significant chunks of your small paychecks to check-cashing companies or having to buy food at the convenience store on the corner may not seem like big issues to those of us who have comfortable incomes but for someone who is living on a shoe-string budget these costs pile up week after week and month after month.  These costs make it even more difficult for someone to get out of poverty.

With our Poverty Challenge we hope that people will be able to see some of these hidden costs of being poor.  Choosing to drive a car will automatically put you over budget,  so if you need to get somewhere you will have to take the bus or start going into debt.  This means you will probably have to walk to your bus stop (which can be a long walk in some neighborhoods) and hope that the bus is on time.  If you miss the bus, that means waiting for at least another 20 minutes for another one.  Being late to work can mean instant firing for workers in many low-wage jobs, which would be a huge set-back because at a poverty level budget, odds are you haven’t been able to save much money in the last couple months.

The difficulty of finding steady transportation is just one hidden cost of being poor that people with higher incomes (who can usually afford a decent car) may not necessarily see.  Reading this article and taking part in the Poverty Challenge is one way that those of us who do not live at the poverty level can begin to get some understanding of the unique difficulties facing those of us living in poverty.

Poor? Pay Up.
Having Little Money Often Means No Car, No Washing Machine, No Checking Account And No Break From Fees and High Prices

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009

You have to be rich to be poor.

That’s what some people who have never lived below the poverty line don’t understand.

Put it another way: The poorer you are, the more things cost. More in money, time, hassle, exhaustion, menace. This is a fact of life that reality television and magazines don’t often explain.

So we’ll explain it here. Consider this a primer on the economics of poverty.

“The poor pay more for a gallon of milk; they pay more on a capital basis for inferior housing,” says Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). “The poor and 100 million who are struggling for the middle class actually end up paying more for transportation, for housing, for health care, for mortgages. They get steered to subprime lending. . . . The poor pay more for things middle-class America takes for granted.”

Poverty 101: We’ll start with the basics.


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2008 Poverty Challenge Reflections

– Fr. Ron Sajdak,

Co-Chairperson Peace & Justice Commission

Of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo

Pastor of St. Martin de Porres/Buffalo, NY

It has been fifteen years since I’ve had to live from pay check to paycheck. The preparation material for the 2008 poverty challenge helped me to want to embrace this initiative so that I may better understand and relate to the day to day struggles of so many here in our city and state.

Being a church professional, and dedicating myself to a life of “professional simplicity” in light of Gospel directives, I thought the challenge would be somewhat off balanced for me. I thought that I wouldn’t be a “normal candidate” and that it would be too easy for me.

As I prepared to take the 2008 challenge, I was surprised to consider so many things that I daily take for granted such as: the cost of having my own private transportation, internet at home, cable TV, health insurance – even if I don’t use it right now, not to mention the cost of meals. Even at the outset it began to open my eyes.

I’m here to report that I failed the challenge. I tried every which way to modify my life. Because I own my car but fuel and insurance costs are provided to me by my church I called my vehicle a “company car” and reduced my daily cost for the vehicle in half. But even with that done, no cable TV at home, no internet, cooking my own meals that would last throughout the challenge, I still couldn’t make ends meet.

At the conclusion of the poverty challenge, I’m ashamed of my failure but I’ve grown in admiration for the countless who have to make ends meet on so little. I’m challenged to investigate how I can make a difference for others. I’m humbled and challenged to a greater simplicity of life just so others may simple live.

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This reflection on the Poverty Challenge experience comes to us from Erin Meegan, staff member for Buffalo Common Council Member Michael Kearns.

I pride myself on being a person who isn’t into money. I don’t wear designer labels or even shop at malls for clothes (Goodwill and Target are fine with me). I don’t care about cars or jewelry. I have been to Central America and India and seen how my choices and the choices of other people in developed nations often enslave the poorest and most vulnerable. I believe in living simply so that others may simply live. And I work for the city because I believe what I do helps make Buffalo a better place to live, even though I could be making more in the private sector.

And yet, I couldn’t make it on the poverty budget either day! Tuesday was my father’s 68th Birthday. I couldn’t say “Sorry, Dad” to a fancy family dinner out, so I went. And I brought my WWII-buff-Dad his gift: “Atonement” by Ian McEwan ($15). Today, Wednesday, I was determined to make it. I had toast for breakfast and was planning on a cheap dinner and lunch to compliment taking the bus. But today I had my hearing for the parking ticket I got last month. Despite my well-reasoned argument I was told I had to pay the ticket- $35!

I can rationalize to myself and say that these were days that were atypical, that living on poverty level wages isn’t impossible….but isn’t every week and month full of “atypical” spending days for us? This week we have to spend more because it’s somebody’s last day at the office, the front steps need new paint, we have to go to dinner to celebrate an anniversary. There is always something, but for those who really live on poverty-level wages, these budget-busters are luxuries. What really shocked me is to see how little wiggle room there is in a budget like this- no room for money for a doctor’s visit, a security deposit on an apartment, car repairs, or anything else.

As I reflect on Devan’s post and my time in poor countries, I know that I, too, am a child of astounding affluence, which we call “the middle class” in America. I, too, had cheap rent and a great landlord during college because of a connection through a roommate’s family friend. I have had two computers and two cars given to me by my parents. Granted, they were all very used by the time I got them, but they were simply handed to me nonetheless. I am left thinking that I need to do more….because there are too many who are living on too little.

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For those of you participating in the Poverty Challenge, you may have had a rough Day Two with the start of the poverty budget. And Day One probably feels like a million years ago.

I know, for me, that’s how it feels. I am the AmeriCorps staff for the Homeless Alliance. For those who are not as familiar with the AmeriCorps program, it is a great way for folks to get a lot of experience in non-profit, service-related fields. The catch is that your income is a living stipend that is set at the federal poverty guideline.

I’ve had to become a bit savvy about my budget since becoming an AmeriCorps volunteer. The first thing that had to go was TV. I haven’t owned a TV in almost 2 years, and haven’t watched much TV aside from what I can sometimes find for free on the internet. A priority for me has been an apartment that is close to work – I’m about 3 1/2 miles from work now. I don’t go out for a drink more than 3-4 times a year. When I feel really indulgent I will go to the “cheapy theater” in Cheektowaga and see movies 2 months after they hit theaters to be sure I’m getting the cheapest price. I considered myself pretty assimilated into a poverty budget.

Until today.

I am going through the budget once again. The weather is nice, so, fortunately, I can ride my bike. Thank God it isn’t December or January – riding my bike would not be an option. Also, if I weren’t young and healthy, riding my bike wouldn’t be an option.

I don’t have a TV, so that’s easy. Cell phone – I can’t go without my cell phone. That was my first thought. What would I do? My parents couldn’t call me (they would worry about their youngest son in the big city of Buffalo), I couldn’t get in touch with my girlfriend, my friends, my brother in the Hudson Valley. Then medical insurance – need that – $1.60 out of the window. This leaves me with $5.99 for my meals today. Technically, this also counts for my personal care needs – and the shaving razors I bought the other day that cost me $25(highway robbery!) and cut into my food budget for the month.

$5.99. That’s a sub at Jim’s Steakout. That’s falafel at Amy’s Place. Not enough for wings at Anchor Bar. That’s 3 slices of pizza at La Nova. Thankfully I don’t have a family to feed, just myself.

I started out the morning with some rye bread, cheese, and coffee for breakfast. I’m estimating the cost of this being about $2. For lunch, I plan to lean on the hospitality of the cafeteria at the building where I work for a meal. This will leave me with four dollars. But I promised a friend I would have coffee with her. That means $2 off right there. This leaves me with $2 for dinner.

There is a store in my neighborhood that gets day-old bread every Tuesday from a local bakery. They leave the bread right in front of the register which is next to the entrance. Good thing, too – that way, folks don’t have to feel the shame of walking around the store with a loaf of bread, they can grab it on the way out with their bags and no one will know the difference. I will probably get a loaf of bread and eat it with some tomato sauce. This will keep me within my budget.

And sure, I stayed within the budget, but what kind of quality of life is this? Bread and coffee meals?

Some folks have remarked that the Poverty Challenge has helped them realize what it is that they truly need and what are luxuries. I think the Poverty Challenge is showing me the privileges that I have. I have the privilege of very very cheap rent from a great landlord that you simply don’t find in the Buffalo News apartment listings, but instead through connections. I have the privilege of free internet at home; my upstairs neighbor lets me use their wireless internet at no cost. I have the privilege of a free lunch everyday. I have the privilege of being young, healthy, with no kids. Some folks don’t have those privileges.

Sometimes there are folks who say that they were in poverty while they were in college and first starting to work but they got themselves out of it and are now successful, so everyone else can do it. I wonder if they had some of those same privileges as me.

Devan DeCicco, Education Coordinator for the Homeless Alliance of WNY

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The Poverty Challenge is off to a great start! Check out Rev. Drew Ludwig’s blog. Drew is the Pastor of Lafayette Presbyterian Church and is participating in the Poverty Challenge. He has chosen to not use his car or public transportation today and is blogging his experience with the Poverty Challenge:

No Cell phone, no driving. In order to make a little more room to eat, I will also forgo internet at home, and post from church.

Leftovers from last night’s dinner were breakfast today. That, plus my morning cup of coffee takes me to about $1.50. I started to look in the fridge for more after my breakfast, but then I remembered that I have to eat the rest of the day, so I should budget myself a little bit more carefully.

After I started riding my bike to the church, I remembered that I left my lunch at home. That means that I will have to ride back home or find another way to eat.

Another small adjustment. I plan on visiting my friend John in the hospital today. He would love a diet coke or some non-hospital coffee and/or a newspaper. But buying him these things means less for me. I haven’t decided what to do yet. I want to be a good guy, but I don’t want to go without, either.

Which brings up another dilemma. Because I am not driving, somebody else will have to give our kids a ride home from youth group tonight. Living without affluence means that I have to serve in other ways, and it means other people do the things I normally would.

Of my $7.56 that I started with, I have $6.06 remaining [This number will be updated after lunch].

One thing I find particularly interesting is Drew’s account of not being able to bring his friend a soda or coffee because that would mean less for him. Sometimes even being able to give someone a gift -even something as small as a soda or coffee – is a privilege that some don’t have.

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