When our community first came together in 2015 to study the root causes of poverty and grasp the scale of its effects, it didn’t take long to reach the sobering but important conclusion that pervasive, long-standing, and deeply rooted poverty is the greatest crisis Rochester has ever faced.
The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative was formed three years ago with community agencies, government and citizens working together in an unprecedented way. Through RMAPI, our community has made significant and encouraging strides on the journey to address poverty at its root causes, but the latest U.S. Census Bureau update for poverty in Rochester underscores the importance of the work still to be done.
The five-year data shows that Rochester’s poverty rate is 33.1 percent, the child rate is 51.9 percent, and the rate of extreme poverty (those living below half the federal poverty line) is 16.8 percent. All rank among the highest in the nation. This continues to show the long-term challenges identified in previous reports and underscores the urgency of our work: overcoming the status quo in systems that perpetuate poverty.
Rochester’s poverty crisis was generations in the making and we do not expect there to be any quick fixes, but it is not a completely intractable problem. Through a dedicated, communitywide effort, we can make a real difference, but this will take time.
By employing a new model of collaboration with agencies, government and citizens, we have a roadmap for how to achieve long-term poverty reduction. First, we have to understand the complex, interwoven processes that connect people with resources and opportunities to move out of poverty. Our community has been conducting a deep study of the systems in place to address poverty, and we are currently undertaking a complete mapping of the social service sector to identify its efficiencies and areas for improvement.
Once these process changes are implemented, we will have created the foundation on which to make dramatic improvements to the wider systems that address — and in some cases, perpetuate — poverty. The end result of this work is change at the population level, achieved through an integrated system that is responsive to changing needs and continually improving the quality of life for our community.
In other communities that have taken on this complex task, it has taken several years for the process to come to fruition, but many were able to make significant, sustainable improvements in the broader population. In Cincinnati, StrivePartnership brought together more than 300 cross-sector representatives to address poor performance among urban school districts, and over 10 years it was able to improve 85 percent of key indicators of student success. In Canada, an initiative known as Vibrant Communities brought stakeholders from more than a dozen cities together to implement systemwide poverty-reduction changes, reducing poverty by as much as 10 percent in some cities.
While there are many factors influencing poverty in our community, RMAPI’s deep study of the root causes of poverty and the many other complementary efforts in our community have led us to two specific areas of focus: workforce development and improving access to basic needs.
Given the current data shared in this report, the focus on creating long-term systemic change can’t be the only work we are doing to address poverty. We have supported the growth of the Young Adult Manufacturing Training Education Program, developed in partnership with TruForm Manufacturing to help low-income individuals prepare for a career in manufacturing. This has shown tremendous results in moving them into sustainable employment by integrating the entire system of workforce development, bringing together the resources and training needed to ensure success for its graduates. This is but one example of the many efforts working every day to help people affected by poverty.
We have set out to fight poverty in a meaningful way, and there are many reasons to be encouraged. We have seen a significant commitment from stakeholders across our community, putting RMAPI ahead of the pack even among many of our peers across the country. Our state and local leaders have made significant commitments to a long-term approach to reducing poverty, and partners have begun making necessary changes to their processes.
Change will not take place overnight, but it is coming, and we are confident we will see a new day in Rochester with equal opportunities for success for all our residents, a level playing field for those looking to work and support their families, and a system that effectively meets the needs of all our neighbors.
Leonard Brock is the director of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.