The Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative plans to continue to advocate for more livable wages this year. The community collaborative also lists an inclusive pandemic recovery, family support and the decriminalization of poverty as part of its 2022 policy agenda.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has fully exposed the inequities that pervade our community and keep people trapped in a cycle of poverty,” says Aqua Porter, executive director of RMAPI. “Now is the time for all of us to come together, harnessing the voice of community members who are demanding change.”
RMAPI, launched in 2015 in response to the high poverty rates in the city of Rochester, is committed to identifying and advocating policy changes that holistically increase the income of people in poverty, officials say. These include a call for higher wages, affordable basic needs, flexible benefit programs, and income and wage equity. The organization believes state and local governments can support families and workers through policies and resources that provide higher wages and incentivizing private-sector employers to pay more. The first step: establishing a $15 hourly minimum wage, while acknowledging that rate is still not a living wage.
“We have ensured that no county employee makes less than $15 (an hour) and are prioritizing an equitable economic recovery from the damages incurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. We will emerge from the pandemic stronger than we entered it—and it is my mission to ensure everyone has a seat at the table,” Monroe County Executive Adam Bello says.
According to the RMAPI agenda, specific policies that support this priority include:
■ increasing the state minimum wage to $15 per hour faster than currently scheduled and indexing it to inflation to ensure consistent future increases (the upstate rate increased to $13.20 on Dec. 31, with future annual increases to be set by the state commissioner of labor based on economic indices);
■ boosting reimbursement rates and changing state and federal contract rules for nonprofits, service providers, and health providers to provide funding for higher wages; and
■ allowing for more flexibility in public benefits to “ensure wage increases do not lead to an unintended benefits cliff.”
Unprecedented federal pandemic recovery funds offer a unique opportunity for equitable and inclusive decisions. RMAPI’s agenda eyes transformative and long-term change when it comes to allocating these dollars.
“If our region is to truly ‘recover,’ we must address existing disparities along with the segregation, structural racism, and trauma that has created them. Yet, the importance of equitable and inclusive government decisions and processes goes beyond COVID and should be the standard for all policies and processes moving forward,” RMAPI says.
Policies in this realm include creating paid and accessible training programs that are direct pathways to employment; and addressing housing and school segregation, with steps such as incentivizing changes to zoning and reinvesting in communities with high need.
Building economic security across generations by investing in families is also on the list. Flexible systems and policies—meeting families where they are—that make basic needs more accessible and affordable to the low-income population can be one step toward promoting long-term financial stability, breaking the cycle of poverty that spans generations.
“As legislators, we must view our every policy decision through an anti-poverty lens,” says state Assembly member Jennifer Lunsford. “We must ensure that we prioritize the kind of systemic changes we need to deconstruct the racist and classist barriers that exist to keep people in poverty.”
Lunsford’s colleague, Assembly member Demond Meeks, notes that the community cannot expect to lift up families and neighborhoods without decriminalizing poverty and establishing policies that support disenfranchised members of the Rochester community.
“Effective community leadership and bold government action are both necessary to ensure that we bring each of our families out of the cycle of poverty and create opportunities to build generational wealth,” he says. “It is essential that we deliver meaningful investments where they are needed most and remain intentional in promoting lasting change for the people of Rochester.”
In the section on decriminalizing poverty, the policy agenda states that “too many criminal justice laws and policies perpetuate poverty and structural racism, especially policies that lead to over incarceration or excessive financial penalties—often creating a cycle of re-incarceration and poverty.” The region must ensure people in poverty do not face unnecessary barriers, punishments, or fines and are able to access resources, support, and opportunity to find a pathway out of poverty for themselves and their families, RMAPI says.
“Through direct outreach with thousands of members across our community, our priorities are clear—we must advocate for equitable wages, for investments in families and an end of policies that make it a crime to be poor,” Porter says. “We must ensure that all decisions going forward are made with a foundation of equity and inclusion of all members of our community.”
Among other elected officials supporting RMAPI’s 2022 policy agenda are state Sen. Jeremy Cooney, Assembly member Harry Bronson and Rochester Mayor Malik Evans.
“Raising wages, supporting families, decriminalizing poverty and incorporating equity and inclusivity into our pandemic recovery investments will provide our residents and future generations with opportunities they need to achieve their full potential,” Evans says.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.