Rochester is the fifth poorest city in the country out of the 75 largest metro areas and the second poorest out of comparably sized cities, according to a sobering new report from the Rochester Area Community Foundation and ACT Rochester.
But what's most distressing about the report's findings is the extreme concentration of poverty in Rochester, and the deep barriers to social and economic progress it poses. When compared to other cities, Rochester's concentration of poverty is profound. [The report is attached below.]
"It's abnormal," says Edward Doherty, vice president of the Rochester Area Community Foundation and author of the report. "This is not a reflection of the typical urban environment."
There are roughly 161,000 people living below the federal poverty level in the nine-county Rochester region. But that statistic may be low, considering that the federal guidelines are so low that many human service professionals find them impractical. For example, a single person earning $11,490 annually -- just above the poverty line -- would make $5.53 an hour or about what babysitters earn.
The big problem is that 66 percent of the region's poor reside in Monroe County and most are families with children living in the City of Rochester. And while the region's white population has a lower poverty rate than the national average, the poverty rate for African Americans and Hispanics is significantly higher.
Rochester's high concentration of poverty is a product of a historical mix of factors, Doherty says. A great in-migration of African Americans who generally didn't benefit from the area's early manufacturing boom, unregulated urban sprawl that attracted middle-class families away from the city, lack of low-income suburban housing, and loss of low-skilled jobs with Rochester's big employers have all contributed to the city's high poverty rate, he says.
And those trends helped to pack the poor into highly segregated African American and Hispanic neighborhoods, he says. The report cites a Brookings Institution study showing that Rochester has 27 neighborhoods distinguished by poverty rates of 40 percent or higher.
What troubles Doherty most, he says, are the missed opportunities to reverse course. When it comes to sprawl and housing, for example, local and state policies that could have mitigated the concentration of poverty were never developed, he says.
"I think we are remarkably resistant to change," he says. And he says he hopes the report will encourage residents, politicians, and community leaders to take action before it's too late.
Doherty refers to research by David Rusk published in Rusk's book "Cities without Suburbs." When a city loses 20 percent of its population or more, has a minority population of 30 percent or more, and a significant city-suburb income gap, the combination all but doom a central city socially and economically, according to Rusk.
When this occurs, transformative change becomes more costly and increasingly more difficult, Doherty says. This is especially evident in Rochester's schools, he says. Improving the educational outcomes of a district where 88 percent of its students live below the poverty level -- even with a budget of three-quarters of a billion dollars -- is going to be difficult, he says.
Doherty says the report shows that there needs to be a community conversation that puts everything on the table, including taboo subjects like metro government.
"We really have to change something, he says.