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.
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.