Rochester’s misdirected war on poverty

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It is tragic that Rochester for so many years has been one of the national leaders in urban poverty. One initiative after another has been introduced to address the problem tapping multiple spigots of funding from both philanthropic and government sources. Recently, Gov. Andrew Cuomo tossed another $25 million our way in his State of the State address while the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative announced a $200,000 award to fund five different poverty related causes.

Jim Ryan Jr.

Headlines like these have become very common nationally dating back to 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson announced his War on Poverty initiative. Since then it is estimated that the country has spent over $25 trillion to fight poverty, more than all wars combined since the Revolutionary War . But even after this massive spending, poverty has not been deterred. Instead of being in retreat, the U.S. poverty rate has hovered in the range of 12 percent to 15 percent of the population over this half-century period. Getting no return on a $25 trillion investment is unimaginable, but it is especially painful given the destruction and suffering that poverty has left in its wake. Here at home, the story looks even worse as Rochester’s poverty rate has soared far beyond the national urban average.

After all the financial support for anti-poverty programs both nationally and locally, why have we failed to make even incremental gains? In hindsight, it seems evident that the national and local strategy has been critically flawed as too many programs have prioritized making the lives of the impoverished more comfortable ahead of the need to actually defeat poverty. Instead of understanding and then addressing behavioral causes leading to poverty, too often funding is directed toward more food cupboards, more subsidized housing and more services. Studies show that not only is this strategy not working, but it may be doing more to perpetuate rather than eradicate poverty.

A closer look at RMAPI highlights the situation. The recent awards were predominantly used to fund more services to the poor whether to stock more food kitchens, provide more affordable and emergency housing and even to teach the impoverished about community farming. Although all five programs may make life easier for the poor, none seem geared to eradicate the root cause of poverty. RMAPI was launched with great fanfare in 2015 as a revolutionary community initiative with the goal to reduce poverty by 50 percent over the next 15 years. Now that we are roughly four years in, or nearly one quarter of the way there, have we so far reached 25 percent of the goal? Have we even eliminated 1 percent of the poverty in this city? Unfortunately, I think we all sense the answer and the fact is that until we address the causes of poverty directly, there is little hope that any improvement will result.

By definition, the only path to escape poverty is to earn income. And to earn income one must have the requisite skill, desire, ability and discipline to generate productive outputs for an employer. In other words, the only way out of poverty is to get a job and then add enough value to be able to retain that job.

Nearly 60 years of history has shown that programs to make food, housing and additional services more accessible miss the mark because these programs do not teach the impoverished the skills and the habits necessary for self-sufficiency. It is like the proverbial fisherman who instead of being taught to fish is simply given fish to sustain life. The urgency today in Rochester is to develop and multiply a new generation of fishermen and that must start by teaching all children the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. But academic competency must also be supplemented with the personal traits of perseverance, hard work, discipline and drive. Given the generational demise of the family unit and of parenting itself, the backstop to getting this done will have to fall on the shoulders of the urban schools. This is obviously no small order and much has to change for this to be a reality, especially given the state of education in Rochester.

Although this battle plan change may sound unrealistic and wildly optimistic, there are too many examples of cities around the country now making measurable improvement in education reform to discount the expectation. Although the education reform success stories are not yet old enough to demonstrate an unmistakable correlation to reduced poverty, it only stands to reason that as high school and college diplomas proliferate, poverty will be abated. Winning the poverty war will be very difficult and may take generations to accomplish, but it can start only with a reset of the poverty war strategy right here in Rochester.

To meet its goal of a 50 percent poverty reduction, RMAPI and all the other anti-poverty organizations must fundamentally change direction starting today. The sole focus must now be to pour all energy and influence to advocate for a highly functioning school system that will turn urban students into competent fishermen. It is heartening to see recent news that ROC the Future has joined with the mayor to push for school system reform. This a small first step, but it is a step in the right direction. It is imperative that the rest of the community organizations dedicated to fighting poverty follow this lead. The time for action has arrived.

Jim Ryan Jr., president of Ryco Management LLC, is a member of the Rochester Prep board of trustees.

12 thoughts on “Rochester’s misdirected war on poverty

  1. “It is heartening to see recent news that ROC the Future has joined with the mayor to push for school system reform.”

    WHAT??? WHAT??? WHY???

  2. “It is like the proverbial fisherman who instead of being taught to fish is simply given fish to sustain life.”

    Here’s the thing that confuses me about that statement: how is someone of great wealth who inherited that wealth through her/his family and who benefits from the tilting of the playing field accomplished by changing the tax code to benefit those of means not EXACTLY LIKE someone being given fish instead of working at fishing?

    Sure, it’s easy to conceive of programs to combat poverty as making things too easy on the poor, although I honestly have yet to meet a poor person who looked comfortable going to soup kitchens or living in subsidized housing. And, hey, if it’s the life of Riley how come more people of means aren’t showing up at bread lines or scavenging through dumpsters?

    But assume the truth of the statement, then shouldn’t we equally make things less easy on the rich, if it’s actually true that, only by adversity, is moral improvement to be obtained?

    You know, someone who inherits wealth, for example, how about taking 99.9% of that inheritance away so they can enjoy the spiritual growth that comes of “hav[ing] the requisite skill, desire, ability and discipline to generate productive outputs for an employer. In other words, the only way out of … [the indolence of inherited wealth] is to get a job and then add enough value to be able to retain that job.” Who can argue that people of means should work for others in order to improve their moral compasses, also not flying around the world would help the environment quite considerably.

    That said, I heartily agree with the author that poverty is a horrible thing; I also heartily concur that just throwing money at a problem doesn’t solve the problem. I think he’s right on both those points, and absolutely exactly right to raise them, and I abhor those who argue more money solves any problem — although again it does strike me that those of means are not usually heard complaining that they’d be better off making less.

    But at the least I think there’s a corrective “what’s-good-for-the-goose” argument that needs to be boldly asserted every time such arguments are made, specifically WHY is hard work noble for the poor and not for the rich? Or do we still believe that those who possess great wealth by way of inheritance or the rise of stock portfolios (which isn’t manual labor last time I checked) are job creators who must be coddled with every tax break and other special treatment in order that the rest of the population can benefit from the largesse?

    None of the above is to deny the problems the author identifies or denigrate the ideas of employment and work and responsibility. But on the other hand ask anyone of former means what it was like to experience the lockup of the housing market in 2008 and the crash of employment opportunities that followed. I have several advanced degrees and moved to Rochester to take part in its revitalization as a patent attorney partner in a local law firm here. The time was 2008, the crash occurred, I carried two houses for three years, my job here disappeared in 18 months as the firm downsized, and then my mother developed Alzheimers and I spent the next 7 years tending to her 24/7 as well as trying to keep a roof over my family’s heads.

    Those were circumstances that I, a person of enormous overeducation and opportunity, was almost drowned by. So consider how much harder it is for someone who starts out poor; and realize that personal responsibility is hard to exhibit when you’re living hand-to-mouth and surrounded by little if any opportunity.

    Again, not to diminish the author’s point that “work will set you free,” but only to emphasize that the phrase has a second context which should make its use something we should hesitate to do without real thought. And applying the principle to those making money by not working via stocks and legacy wealth is a good test of the phrase.

  3. In response to Andrew Scheinman –
    First let me be clear – I personally think that hard work and achievement are important to lead a fulfilled life – for everyone – the impoverished and the poor. But my piece is not meant to pass moral judgement – rather it is a much more practical look at what it will take to defeat poverty. Poverty requires earning money and earning money requires skills and work discipline. I cannot see how poverty will be defeated without a way to ensure that traits are acquired.

    Jim Ryan

    • Agreed, poverty will be defeated in part by getting people earning money, but earning money for someone who can’t pull herself up by her bootstraps because she can’t afford flip-flops, much less boots much less straps for those boots, that’s going to require a re-balance of the system to stop money poring up to the wealthiest and providing at least BASIC opportunities to the poor, which was the whole point of my little earlier diatribe.

      I totally agree with you that people won’t escape poverty without access to jobs. After all, that’s what MLK had as a fundamental plank to his vision for people of color: freedom and equality through access to jobs and money, not “just” protest. But “traits are acquired” smells a bit too much of a lurking idea that poor people are poor by choice, rather than lack of opportunity. Not saying you intend this elision, just that I feel the need to comment on it on basic principles.

      Again, I never felt or feel that just throwing money at a problem solves it, but I also think that if we want the poor to acquire a taste for work by giving them work, then let’s teach those of means that absence of money isn’t generally a lifestyle choice. In the early 1900s the US Supreme Court struck down minimum wage laws on the theory that “a man has an absolute right to negotiate his own wages” or something like that. Makes perfect sense if you ignore the power imbalance between employer and employee.

      In any case, everything I say I say with complete respect for your position, and an explicit statement that I don’t think you’re judging, just that the arguments you make, when expanded, point to other changes that need to be made.

      Best!

      Andrew

      • Andrew – I do not believe that that people are poor because there are not enough opportunities for work. I believe there are plenty of opportunities especially in today’s economy as the relationship between employer and employee that you reference is titling in favor of employee given the labor shortages that are becoming more pronounced. I also believe that all people – including today’s poor – can pull themselves up by their bootstraps – and this is very evident by looking at the academic results of Rochester Prep.

        If the RCSD was run like Rochester Prep – with rigorous and lofty expectations and accountability (for both the student and the teacher) – it would be a whole different ball game because so many more would be able to land and hold jobs.

  4. The author’s points are as old and tired as the poverty in Rochester; Mr Sheinman’s refreshing and apt. I’d like to see more of his writing in the Rochester Beacon!
    Rochester’s entrenched poverty coincides with the withering of our tax base (begun in 1980’s under Reagan), and our attempts to “solve” it have never confronted the huge role that racism has played in its inception and entrenchment. Until we look the causes squarely in the face, we will not thrive here.

    • I see the author’s and Mr. Sheinman’s points as supporting each other, not that the author’s points are old and tired.

      I’ve read the Rochester poverty reports and screamed when they didn’t cover the reasons causing the poverty. How can you solve a problem when you don’t acknowledge the cause?

      I would love to see the children of rich people have to work as hard as poorer people to make a good leaving, especially since a lot of this wealth was made on the backs of poor people mistreated to bring in more money or gained illegally. I laughed when Mitt Romney said, as he was running for president, that every American has the same chance to improve his or her life. Oh please, give me a break. Just take a look at the current college admissions crisis. But our laws and culture are set up to continue this inequality. Wouldn’t it be great if all wealthy families would do as Melinda and Bill Gates are doing by not leaving their children their wealth. We also need to look at changing laws that support the wealthy getting wealthier.

      Of most importance in my mind is to teach and instill in others the sense of self worth and joy that taking responsibility for yourself provides. I grew up in what is now considered Rochester’s inner city. We were poor as every other person on my street was. My father died when I was 8; my mother had to quit school in 6th grade and had lost an eye. But the one trait I learned from both of my parents was responsibility for myself. When my father died, my mother started cleaning houses. We couldn’t afford steak or pop or chips. We didn’t go on vacation and I didn’t go to camp. But I experienced my mother working solidly to build a home for me and giving me lots of responsibility starting in grammar school, e.g., being responsible for cooking dinner starting at age 10. We need to show the joy that responsibility gives.

      I was listening to a young woman giving a talk at a YWCA luncheon who said she was an older teenager when she found out that not everyone got a check to live on in their mailbox. She was stunned by the work world. This cannot continue.

  5. He’s correct that all solutions need to include a component of personal responsibility. To not acknowledge this is to not recognize the innate humanity in all of us!

  6. If you can’t even acknowledge that the Rochester City Schools are a BIG part of the problem (same with many/most urban districts around the country) then you can’t even be part of a reasonable discussion on this topic. From K-12 grade that is a LOT of time, money, effort spent to give opportunity. I know some are dug in with the RCSD but don’t pretend to have a real solutions based discussion with them – waste of time.

    We have massive wealth inequality in America and most of the world for that matter. I wish that weren’t the case but neither I nor you can wish this away nor can we tax it away. As Jim said, if you have no skill or work ethic to offer after so much FREE education, then WOW, how can we not see that the education is a huge part of the problem!?!? Add up the time and money and you’ll be “fall off your chair” shocked. Can’t teach a child to be productive in 12 years of formal training? Crazy.

    I believe conservatives miss the boat on this issue by opposing things like free school lunch and dinner (if needed), free after-school tutoring and help, etc. in poorer school districts. Hell, house them overnight if need be, whatever it takes to get their K-12 opportunity as close as possible to other school districts. Again, spend our resources on trying to equalize OPPORTUNITY, not outcome years later. Could we offer all this within the current RCSD budget? Of course we could and everyone knows it. The cost per student per year is astounding and no way is it well spent.

    Why not put almost all the focus on opportunity for kids rather than trying to always chase our tails once these kids are adults with no marketable skills or understanding of how to earn their own way?

  7. Rarely am I insensed by your contributor’s musings, but this is unbearable enough to warrant comment. What possible authority has Mr. Ryan to write about poverty?Poverty is an extremely complex issue, but if we allow for reductionism can be understood as a symptom of large-scale systems failure. There is literally no easy way out of the hell of poverty for individuals, no matter how driven, well educated, well connected or hard working, within our current system. And there are thousands of people here that can give a more robust rebuttal of current anti-poverty initiatives because they have lived it and experienced the myriad ways it prevents them from thriving. Anti-poverty initiatives will not succeed until we recognize the ways in which those of us not in poverty benefit from the existence of continued poverty. The very least we can do is ameliorate the worst effects of poverty, which is something RMAPI is doing well. Please, no more commentaries on poverty from anyone other than people primarily affected by it.

  8. Jim you are continuing a worthwhile dialogue. I applaud your involvement @ Rochester Prep – that is the first step for those of us of privilege and who are connected to business. It does intrigue me that describe basic human needs as making people too comfortable. Perhaps Rochester Prep needs some additional board education.
    This isn’t an either or, it is a yes and. As the co-chair of the Rochester Chapter of Conscious Capitalism our purpose is to elevate humanity through business. We are committed to an inclusive prosperity with business taking an active role. We already have a high not-for-profit sector in the community, so obviously they alone are not the answer.
    Every business needs to contribute their time and talent to provide access to a living wage in concert with public sector. DO something.
    Supporting worthy causes and paying out taxes after rigging the system and of course complaining anyway will not cut it.

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