Hochul’s trifling sum for impoverished children

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Gov. Kathy Hochul came to town last week to announce $50 million to help impoverished children in Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse, winning herself favorable, even fawning, news coverage. News reports presented Hochul as a hero of our city’s poorest youngsters.

David Cay Johnston

At first, that sounds like a lot of money, but just a modicum of analysis shows otherwise. Compared to the giveaways lavished on profit-making companies, it’s a drop in the proverbial bucket, not a serious move to lift children out of economic misery.

Hochul, who calls herself “New York’s first mom governor,” noted that nine of the 10 New York State ZIP codes with the worst child poverty rates are in these three Northern Tier cities. She said her “new initiative will support locally driven efforts to address the immediate needs of children and families.”

Rochester has almost 22,000 impoverished children, using the official and outdated 1960s federal poverty measure. Half the $50 million, to be spent on Rochester’s poor children, is about $1,100 each.

Without providing any specifics, the Hochul administration said it wants to concentrate on the four city ZIP codes where childhood poverty is the worst: 14608, 14611, 14605 and 14621. 

The 14608 ZIP code, across the Genesee River from the University of Rochester, shares with Buffalo ZIP code 14201 the worst child poverty rate in the state at 73 percent by one measure and 64 percent by another.

In ZIP code 14608, the median household income—half make more, half less—was just $34,720 in 2021, less than half the Monroe County median of $71,349. The New York State median is $81,386.

By this standard, 13 percent of Monroe County households are impoverished. But that seriously understates the awful economics facing people left behind in 21st-century America, even with the robust economic growth of the last three years.

Using the modern poverty measure known as ALICE, nearly every child in the city of Rochester is impoverished, as would many more in the suburbs and rural towns.

ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

It examines people who work yet have little to no savings because of low wages and are often deeply in debt at high-interest rates, further squeezing them.

ALICE measures what it takes to make ends meet for a basic income. It draws on the insights of Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish professor who figured out market economics, competitive market capitalism, and the economic evils of monopolies. In his 1776 book “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,”he also wrote about how life’s “necessaries” vary in different societies.

United Way charities developed the ALICE concept. In 2015, I became the first national journalist to write about ALICE, which has since expanded to provide data for every county in America.

Applying the ALICE measure almost doubles the child poverty rate in Monroe County from 13 percent to 25 percent.

For the iconic family of four, the 2021 federal poverty line was $26,650 of annual income. For Monroe County, the ALICE measure of income needed to meet basic needs is $61,000 if two children go without paid child care. When both children are in paid child care, that rises to almost $77,000 a year.

In the context of either poverty measure, Hochul’s announcement is a trifling sum that does nothing to lift Rochester’s children out of the misery of poverty.

It’s also a pittance compared to the state and Monroe County giveaways of taxpayer money to corporations.

Under a previous governor, the state gave at least $1.4 billion to the hereditary leader of the oil-rich kingdom of Abu Dhabi to subsidize a computer chip-making operation near Albany.

By two-to-one margins, New York voters banned all gifts of money or credit to corporations in the 1840s, the 1870s, the 1930s, and 1967. Yet, such gifts continue because of a 2011 decision by New York’s highest court, which invented a way around what it acknowledged was this absolute prohibition.

If you have never heard of this, it’s no surprise. The Columbia Journalism Review wrote a scathing piece about the failure of our major news organizations to report on this, citing my articles.

Empire State politicians have given away at least $57 billion or almost $12,000 for each iconic family of four to corporations since 1980, with the overwhelming bulk of the money coming in the last two decades.

Monroe County has found money for such trivial uses as helping two chiropractors move their offices. It tried to give as much as a quarter billion dollars to the Colorado owner of the now-closed Irondequoit Mall, but the deal fell through.

So why did Hochul get a free ride from local journalists?

First, we don’t have nearly enough local journalists to do the work. The Democrat and Chronicle newsroom has just 10 percent of the staff compared to a quarter century ago.

Second, most journalists are highly literate but also innumerate. Few ever use the calculators in their smartphones, and even fewer know how to use a spreadsheet to do the simple, basic analysis used in this piece.

Third, few journalists trust themselves to dig beneath the surface, asking questions on their own initiative that challenge the official version of events. Doing this requires learning about government budgets as well as newsroom supervisors to back their reporters on the streets. Sadly, in our era of severe newsroom job cuts, many editors and producers stay employed because their spines have turned to rubber, while those with steel spines are more likely to be shown the door.

When looked at this way, the news coverage of Hochul’s promises seems out of context.

I believe the coverage of Hochul and the $50 million was just plain bad journalism. The reality is not benevolence but coins for impoverished children while profit-making companies rake in boatloads of taxpayer money.

David Cay Johnston, a Brighton resident since 1993, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and four-time bestselling author who teaches at Syracuse University College of Law.

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13 thoughts on “Hochul’s trifling sum for impoverished children

  1. Fifty Million dollars is a lot of money. But using Mr. Johnson’s numbers, $50,000,000. Divided by 22,000 school kids living in poverty = $2,272.72 per child. I’ve read that some places bypass the community agency model and give the money directly to impoverished families. In some cases that amount might be enough to move the needle for the family to attain freedom from poverty, in others with multiple children, it could be enough to pay for after school enrichment programs. Obviously, more money would be more helpful. A large portion of that money will most likely go to union construction workers to build the new MCC optics training building. It’s unclear how that project rose out of the pack to help a community-supported college. There are enough millionaires and billionaires who would love to have a building named after them who could be persuaded to cover the cost. It won’t do anything in the short term to help impoverished children.
    I have a suggestion for local officials involved in the funding process. Conduct a needs analysis around what families with impoverished children need to better support their children, from one year old through High School. Here’s a novel idea: ask the parents. Then, have experts convene and design a program with clearly stated, objectively evaluated outcomes. Implement a pilot program in the neediest zip code. Monitor frequently. Then, Objectively evaluate if the program achieved the desired outcomes. Then go back and tweak the program making changes based on the objective evaluation.
    One of the other things is that folks who make the hiring decisions for people to lead and staff human service programs rarely have people from the funding agency involved in making hiring decisions, so more often than not there are no objective criterion tied to the program objectives tied to interview or screening of candidates. Funders should have one of their HR or Financial people participate in the program development process and the hiring criterion matrix to help get the most qualified person who understands how scarce and crucial the positive outcomes stated objectives being achieved are. Finally, when I worked as a training manager, we had a saying, most likely borrowed from the Nuclear Navy, that “selection beats the hell out of training.’ Meaning that in addition to the needed skills, knowledge and experience those who make hiring decisions need to screen for temperament and a deep desire to help families rise their children out of poverty.

    • Mr.Orienter,
      The $50 million is spread among three cities. Assuming all the $25 million fur Rochester was spent on children it’s about &1,100, a pittance compared to the childhood poverty problem.

      • Thank You for the correction. I still would like to see monies distributed directly to the people in the worst poverty, to see how much of a difference it would make. I thought the Mayor would start a pilot program that gave families $1,000 to see how they would spend it and if it made any difference. What’s happened to that?

  2. Fresh out of undergrad at Swarthmore, our daughter worked for a couple years as a reporter for a small, independent newspaper in Chester Co, PA. Math, spreadsheets and the like were always her strong suit and she spent a lot of time examining county budgets and questioning the politicos there. I remember her attesting to her colleagues’ poor math skills and their aversion to doing stories that involved digging with numbers.

  3. Fantastic and concise piece. Perhaps there can be a public forum at some community center where Mr. Cay could elaborate on his views and facts. And perhaps even an editor or owner of a news service could come to be on such a panel to discuss these issues.

  4. David Kay Johnson’s response is valuable and informative. I can’t help but wonder if there shouldn’t be a single auditing clearinghouse within the County government that tracks and coordinates all the money spent by all governmental and private entities on how much is spent to support those children living in poverty and what it is used for. And if the stated outcomes are achieved. (it’s always amazed me that folks don’t think the city is part of the county or that there aren’t very poor people outside the city) The excess largess by the government helping private enterprises is based on the myth that these businesses will generate income (not through taxes because businesses get deals that reduce or eliminate taxes for many years). So, the income should come from unidentified workers, who will then pay taxes. More often than not, new businesses need highly skilled and trained workers who are generally not part of the population of impoverished children. Maybe this recent round of money, including part to M.C.C. to help train optics workers, could generate a return on investment. I advocate for a non-existent auditor to be hired to process the data and make the information sharing mandatory annually.
    It’s a tragedy that actual investigative journalism is giving way to less credible internet stories, often from dubious sources. Independent freelance investigative journalists could be persuaded to dig deep and share data with several traditional outlets for a fee. The government should never have allowed the sale and merger of so many newspapers to investors whose only goal was to make money quickly. Sadly, skilled and experienced journalists were let go to recoup more money more quickly.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comments. In 2013 a long report with very detailed information, showing how pervasive poverty is in the city, the suburbs, and the rural areas of the Rochester metropolitan area was published by the the Rochester Area Community Foundation.
      Disclosure: my wife was the CEO of the foundation until late 2022.
      Regular updates 2013 analysis have been published since then.
      One of the biggest shortcomings in government at all levels is a lack of serious and independent after action analysis.
      During the eight years I went to college full-time, while working full-time as a reporter, the most important class I ever took, was a Michigan State University graduate course for government, managers, and executives on how to make failed programs look terrific, and successful programs that politicians didn’t want Look like failures. It’s shaped my work ever since.

  5. As usual, David Cay Johnston provides brilliant reporting. He explains all of his points in clear, concise ways that even someone like myself, who is not an expert in the issues he is talking about, can learn from. Moreover, he stands up for the impoverished and children, groups who often have no voice. Yes, we need to change priorities when budgets are allocated. What will it take for that to happen?

  6. Let me ask a couple of questions.
    1) Do you believe that Governor Hochul actually understands poverty?
    2) Do you believe that Governor Hochul actually believes that $50,000,000.00 will actually assist kids in getting out of poverty?
    3) Do you believe that Governor Hochul is sincere in her efforts to address poverty or just buying votes?
    4) Do you believe that Governor Hochul even realizes that educational failure is the primary reason for this poverty?
    If she did she would address the failing education system in Rochester, NY. It is at its foundation the number one reason for child poverty and generational poverty to say nothing of the associated misery. The governor is out of touch with the realities of the poor. But I’m sure she will sleep better knowing that the headlines have viewed her concerns. How sad is it that the highest ranking person in government can’t seem to even understand poverty.

    • Being governor is a tough job, especially in New York. There is poverty in New York City, the Southern tier, the Adirondacks, and most cities, so she understands poverty. Politics is the art of the possible. She has a staff to help her. She must work with the legislature. She knows that even a billion dollars for Rochester wouldn’t solve the problem. I think she’s sincere in doing what she can. I doubt she has much say when it’s up to local government leaders and businesses who are the ones to decide how to use the money. I’m pretty sure that almost every elected and appointed person in the state knows how badly city schools are failing. Effectively educating kids, especially those living in poverty, requires being supported by a three-legged stool. One is the school, teachers, and administrators, two is the parents and guardians, and three is the community. Sadly, I believe that there are multi-generational artifacts from the hundreds of years enslaved people were forbidden to learn to read and write. Even during the most recent Jim Crow era, there was no value placed on education, so it was believed that it wouldn’t make a difference if you were educated; you still couldn’t get ahead. Of course, that’s an unfair generalization, but I Believe it plays a significant role in communities of color today. Communities need strong, consistent leadership to help people embrace the value of education and the joy of working in a field of their choice.

  7. David Cay’s journalism is always the best. The facts are always verifiable. Anyone who has not at least read his books “Perfectly Legal” and “The Fine Print”, has lost out on a wealth of knowledge on our economy and its intersection with government to the detriment of most Americans. I must add that while our Governor has issued this paltry sum for our city, which has one of the worst child poverty rates in the nation, she made sure the owner of the Buffalo Bills, now worth $6.2 billion, is receiving over three quarters of a BILLION in taxpayer funds for a new stadium. There is no credible study that this so-called investment will generate anywhere near a positive return on investment. Thank you to David Cay and the Beacon.

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