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In 1970, a City Observatory report notes, 2693 residents of Rochester and close-in suburbs lived in census tracts with a high poverty level. In 2010, that number had grown to 37,670.

The roots of our poverty 

Part of an occasional series on poverty in Rochester.

Following my column last week on the new Anti-Poverty Task Force, a reader pushed back. "You say, 'We know what caused our poverty crisis,'" he wrote. Please share. "I'm one of the few that needs to be enlightened to what you imply as common knowledge."

Lots of studies - including two by the Rochester Community Foundation and ACT Rochester (available here and here ) - have laid all this out, but let's review the causes again:

First, there's the change in the kinds of jobs people can get. Once upon a time, even people with limited skills and education could get a job in industry that paid good wages. That's not the case now. And jobs in areas like the service sector often pay poorly.

This has contributed to poverty everywhere, not just in inner-city neighborhoods. But when many of the residents of an individual neighborhood are poor, that neighborhood is likely to be burdened by crime, unemployment, health problems, weak social networks. Concentrating those problems in a single neighborhood compounds them. And it breeds more poverty.

click to enlarge Poverty’s spread: In 1970, a City Observatory report notes, 2693 residents of Rochester and close-in suburbs lived in census tracts with a high poverty level. In 2010, that number had grown to 37,670. - GRAPHIC BY MATT DETURCK
  • GRAPHIC BY MATT DETURCK
  • Poverty’s spread: In 1970, a City Observatory report notes, 2693 residents of Rochester and close-in suburbs lived in census tracts with a high poverty level. In 2010, that number had grown to 37,670.

Young people growing up in impoverished, segregated neighborhoods are less likely to have jobs available to them as teenagers. They have fewer positive adult role models, less peer pressure to study, to show up and do well in school.

And in a city like Rochester, where poverty is so extensive that the majority of students in nearly every school are poor, teaching is an entirely different challenge than in schools where most children have educated, relatively affluent parents.

It's easy to say that poor people can pick themselves up and get a good job. And it's easy to blame parents and teachers for children's poor performance. But the neighborhood itself - the concentration of its problems - has an effect on its residents.

"Poverty anywhere and in any amount is a problem," notes a December study by City Observatory, "but concentrated poverty is often intractable and self-reinforcing."

That is exactly what has happened in Rochester, and the City Observatory study provides the statistics. In 1970, 2,693 residents of the city and close-in suburbs lived in census tracts with a high poverty level. In 2010, that number had grown to 37,670.

In 1970, two Rochester census tracts had a high poverty level. In 2010, there were 39.

The trend rarely reverses itself by itself. Nationally, the City Observatory study found, not only did the number of high-poverty census tracts triple between 1970 and 2010, but two-thirds of those that were high-poverty areas in 1970 remained high-poverty areas in 2010.

A big contributor, of course, has been sprawl, with middle and upper-income families moving out of the city, taking their taxes, their school-age children, spending power, community involvement, and support for neighborhood businesses, schools, and churches with them.

As I wrote last week, Rochester is embarking on yet another big anti-poverty initiative, with great hope and enthusiasm. But we've been down this road before. And things have gotten worse.

The reason: we haven't addressed the causes - the concentration of poverty, the low wages. We keep pretending that we can fix the problem without addressing the causes. We can't.

And if this new initiative, this new Rochester Anti-Poverty Task Force, doesn't address the causes? I wouldn't bet on its success.

David Carr

Many of us are mourning the loss of David Carr, a star in contemporary journalism who died Thursday night from complications of lung cancer.

David was media columnist for the New York Times, but he was much, much more. Times Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. called him "one of the most gifted journalists who has ever worked at The New York Times." He was an astonishingly strong reporter and writer - "an irreplaceable talent," Sulzberger said.

In person as well as in his writing, he was bright, perceptive, and as Sulzberger wrote, "full of life and energy, funny, loyal, and lovable."

And he was tough, beating both a horrifying cocaine addiction and Hodgkin's lymphoma. But in photographs over the past year or so, he was painfully thin and gaunt. Cancer wasn't finished with him. And after participating in a panel discussion Thursday, the Times report said, he returned to the Times newsroom and collapsed near his desk.

Before hitting journalism's Big Time, David had been a star in the world of alternative journalism, serving as editor of Washington City Paper, and he maintained his ties to our alt-media association, coming back to our conferences as a speaker.

He was hard working, dedicated, intensely ethical, fiercely devoted to the profession of journalism and in love with it. In those gatherings of alt-news media people from around the country, he chastised us, cajoled us, and inspired us, reminding us of what we're supposed to be about.

At one point last Friday, David's death was the second-most e-mailed story on the Times website, and the site has been flooded with tributes to him, not only from journalists but also from average readers. Alt weeklies and other media have run their own tributes. I'd like to think he'd be pleased - not so much by the praise being heaped on him but that the tributes showed how much readers respected the kind of journalism he cared so much about.

"David was our champion," Times film critic AO Scott said in his own tribute, "the best we had and also the one who would go out into the world every week to make the case for what we do."

There's a big hole in a lot of hearts right now.

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