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Our crisis of poverty, racism, and segregation 

This has to be an almost dizzyingly heady time for Lovely Warren. On January 1, she'll be sworn in as Rochester's mayor, the first woman to hold that position. Her administrative appointments are getting positive reviews. Last week, she joined other newly elected mayors at the White House for a discussion with President Obama.

But she's about to inherit a daunting job: running a city that has one of the highest poverty rates – and highest concentrations of poverty – in the nation.

Warren certainly understands the problem. On City Council, she has represented some of the poorest neighborhoods in this poverty-heavy city. And obviously, her knowledge of those neighborhoods helped shape her promise that as mayor, she would address the economic development, public safety, and education needs of the city. It helped shape her thinking when she hammered away at the great gap between the "two Rochesters."

Warren can't bridge that gap by herself. She'll need the commitment and involvement not just of city residents but also of people throughout the region.

She and the larger community have been given a great gift, in the form of this month's report from the Rochester Area Community Foundation and ACT Rochester. Titled "Poverty and the Concentration of Poverty in the Nine-County Greater Rochester Area," the report's principal author and researcher was Ed Doherty – who has his own long experience with Rochester and its challenges. He was the city's budget director for four years and was commissioner of environmental services for 19.

The report is a powerful, sobering document. It notes that Rochester's poverty rate is "higher than all the principal cities in the nation's largest metros": higher than the poverty rate of Miami, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington.

It notes that the concentration of poverty itself – in specific neighborhoods in Rochester and in the region's other urban areas – magnifies the problems that poverty creates.

As our news report noted earlier this month, Doherty's report spells out the multiple ways we got here: African-American migration patterns, sprawl, employment changes. And significantly, Doherty pulls absolutely no punches in linking our poverty concentration to racism.

"While it is important not to equate race and ethnicity with poverty," writes Doherty, "the correlation in the Greater Rochester area is indisputable."

"Cities have always had sub-areas of concentrated poverty," Doherty writes, "but the strong attitudes and policies that encouraged racial and ethnic segregation had, and continue to have, a profound impact on our community."

The city's black population was small until after 1950. But it grew rapidly after that – tripling by 1960, doubling again by 1970, and continuing to grow substantially until 2000. And, Doherty writes, the black population growth was at its greatest "when overt housing discrimination was the norm and substantially permitted by law."

Permitted by law. And practiced routinely because of racial prejudice. Racial discrimination – private and official – limited the choice of both housing and employment, Doherty writes, "even for professionals."

And thanks in part to the discrimination in employment, many of the African Americans segregated in the inner-city neighborhoods were poor. As a result, Rochester has been racially and economically segregated to an extraordinary degree.

That segregation continues. Affordable rental housing in the suburbs, Doherty writes, "is nearly non-existent." There is almost no public housing in the suburbs, and most of it, writes Doherty, "is limited to seniors or disabled persons."

The segregation and discrimination hasn't been ignored – not totally. Rochester's 19th Ward Community Association was an early national leader in the fight against real-estate block busting. Over the years, numerous citizens groups have pushed for efforts to reduce the city's rapidly growing school segregation.

But their warnings have been ignored. The majority of the citizens of the Community of Monroe seem content to let the segregation and the concentrated poverty continue. And they seem content to let the city deal with many of the resulting problems – housing, public safety, education – by itself.

Dealing with the education problem, of course, is essential. We didn't need Ed Doherty's report to know that Rochester's school district is in crisis. Test scores, drop-out rates, graduation rates: all are dismayingly bad. Nor did we need Doherty's report to know that most children in the Rochester school district are poor. But it is a jolt to read the statistics.

While the city's poverty rate is 31.1 percent, Doherty writes, the child poverty level is 46 percent – and the poverty rate of students in city schools is 88 percent.

Evidence of our poverty concentration and segregation is hard to avoid. "Rochester is the poorest of Upstate New York's 430 school districts," Doherty writes. And just a few minutes away are the districts of high-income communities like Pittsford and Fairport.

It is not a coincidence, in other words, that Rochester has one of the nation's highest rates of concentrated poverty and one of its poorest-performing school districts. The evidence from national research is clear: concentrated poverty takes a terrible toll on children's education. We won't be successful in dealing with Rochester's educational crisis unless we deal with its concentrated poverty.

While we can (and should) get some improvements in the school district despite the city's poverty, Doherty writes, those improvements will be "marginal... narrow and difficult to sustain."

What might we do about our poverty concentration? You know some of the possibilities: metro schools, metro government. And yet even a discussion of those topics causes near panic. No suburban official is calling for housing for the poor. (And we all know what would happen if one did.)

Once upon a time, Monroe County political leaders seemed to recognize the need to act as one community, creating a countywide library system, water system.... But the last big effort was the Morin-Ryan Plan, the tax-sharing system developed by the late Rochester Mayor Tom Ryan, a Democrat, and then-County Executive Lou Morin, a Republican. And that was in 1984 – nearly 30 years ago.

Since then... well, since then, there's been a lot of talk and not much positive action. The county (Republicans and Democrats alike) has clung to a no-new-taxes dogma, the results of which include reduced funding for day care, elimination of county funding for downtown police, and increased fees for city taxpayers.

And while we're big on giving to charities that help the poor, for the most part those charities treat symptoms, not causes. That's the way we do things, maybe because it makes us feel better than paying taxes (or, as employers, raising wages).

But the long-term solution is to move people out of poverty. That means there'll have to be many more jobs available – jobs that pay a living wage. And the poor will have to be able to qualify for those jobs.

The city can't address that by itself.

Doherty doesn't offer solutions in his report. He does point to the success of some communities in other parts of the country, regions that have consolidated governments and school districts. But, he says, "it would be dangerous to pursue such options without detailed study and community engagement."

Regardless, he adds, we're going to have to consider "a wide range of difficult changes if this deeply embedded concentration of poverty is to be alleviated." And he lays out the essential first step:

"If we are to address the issues described in this report," he writes, "the Greater Rochester community needs to find a willingness to change. Real and sustained change is not likely to occur from the top unless there is a political imperative. It is also unlikely to rise from the grass roots, given that most of our residents are comfortable and very segregated from those who are not."

And so, writes Doherty: "Real change can come only with greater understanding." We're all going to have to understand the depth of this community's poverty – and that, he says, "requires frank and candid discourse." And we're going to have to understand that poverty is a problem for all of us and that it affects all of us: not just the poor themselves and their neighborhoods.

"Surely," Doherty writes, "it is not too hard to comprehend that the impacts of poverty stand in the way of our region's economic and social success. Those impacts are felt most greatly by our children – and their communities and their schools."

And, he writes, "Our future may be bleak if we do not find a better way."

Merry Christmas, folks.

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