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Are we really willing to tackle poverty? 

You know the stats: Rochester has the third-highest poverty level of any US city of comparable size - and the highest rate of extreme poverty. More than half of the children in the city are poor, giving us the second-highest child poverty rate in in the country.

The statistics, the extent, may be news, but it is not news that Rochester has a poverty crisis. It is not news, either, that Rochester has known about it for decades and hasn't done the hard work required to alleviate it.

And every so often, regular as clockwork, we get a new report, and community leaders cry out in shock and announce their determination to Do Something. And they form a committee.

And the poverty grows.

It's not that nobody cares. It's not that a great deal of effort - and, yes, money - isn't invested in worthy programs. But the result is clear: We're not fighting poverty effectively. We have a raft of programs that serve people already in poverty, and those are important. But few of them will reduce poverty. And those that could don't serve more than a relative handful.

And so, as the new year was dawning, we got another anti-poverty initiative: the Rochester Anti-Poverty Task Force (named at its birth, curiously, the Anti-Poverty Strike Force).

To their credit, the folks who initiated this effort noted right up front that what we've been doing isn't working. A December 27 document titled "Rochester-Monroe County Anti-Poverty Initiative Proposal" (signed by New York Assembly Leader Joe Morelle, Mayor Lovely Warren, County Executive Maggie Brooks, and United Way CEO Peter Carpino), insists that we need "a "bold, innovative solution."

But the proposal's idea of boldness seems focused on improving the very "system" that it says isn't working. It talks about "integrating" our existing services, about "flexible funding arrangements," "better targeting and coordinating resources."

This community has already done important studies of its poverty problem - its causes and the steps that could alleviate it. Those studies show clearly that the causes include the concentration of the community's poverty in a few city neighborhoods. But this proposal seems to assume that we can't do much about that - that we can deal with this problem while we keep it bottled up, where our anti-poverty efforts won't disturb the rest of us.

I'm being cynical. I know that this was a proposal, not a plan. Representatives of various groups are going to get together and develop a plan. Maybe they'll come up with a bold one. But I'm not optimistic. We've already been down this road, way too many times.

We know what caused our poverty crisis. And we know the big steps we have to take to address it effectively. And bigger coordination among social-service agencies ain't on the list.

I'll keep coming back to this issue, and the work of the new task force, as things get going. But let me toss out a challenge: Agree that "coordination" and "flexible funding" and that kind of thing are important. But they're housekeeping. They're what taxpayers and charitable donors should expect. They're not bold.

And then start talking about the hard stuff. Agree, for instance, that we can't solve this community's poverty crisis within the city limits. Focus on things like the minimum wage, low-income housing in the suburbs, school integration, education quality, parenting and early-childhood education from birth forward, the criminal justice system.

Improving local services for the poor is important. Done right, they will make life easier for some poor people and may lift a few people out of poverty. But they treat symptoms, not causes.

It's treating the causes that is hard. And expensive.And politically controversial. But if we're not willing to address the causes, all we're doing is tinkering - and to put it bluntly, making ourselves feel that we're Doing Something.

More on all that in the weeks to come.

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