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Rochester’s anti-poverty report: An uninvited skeptic’s review 

Rochester's poverty crisis didn't occur overnight, Leonard Brock reminds us, and we won't end it overnight. So I'm trying to be patient and look at the positive side of the initial efforts of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, of which Brock is executive director.

Earlier this month, the Initiative released a progress report, and you can certainly find some positives in it. A big one: it doesn't shy away from citing racism as one of the causes of poverty's explosion in Rochester - not simply the racism of individual people but the racism that permeates government, institutions, and businesses in ways that people in authority often don't seem to recognize.

A second positive is the report's emphasis on the trauma that poverty inflicts on the poor, children and adults alike. That trauma is real, and it has to be considered in Rochester's anti-poverty efforts if they are going to be successful.

But then come my concerns.

The progress report identifies three areas that will be the Initiative's first focus. Notably missing from that list: schools, which are a critical key to ending poverty. The progress report says the Initiative's work is just beginning; education and much more are to be tackled in the future. To be addressed in the first stage are the following:

• Improving the current system of social supports that serve the poor;

• Establishing a system of adult mentors to help the poor get the knowledge and skills they need to get and keep a living-wage job;

• Strengthening early-childhood support - ensuring more affordable, high-quality childcare and more training for new parents.

Even those initial three are simply goals, and presumably it'll be a while before we get a list of specific plans to reach those goals. Yet to come: defining the Initiative's "governance approach," forming "resource teams" to develop principles for the Initiative's work, forming "implementation teams" to come up with specific recommendations for action, identifying funding sources, developing a funding model, studying the working poor to learn what kind of jobs they have and what they're earning....

That work is to be completed by the end of 2015, according to the progress report.

For anyone not used to this way of addressing problems - and I'll put myself at the head of the list - this seems like a whole lot of preparation and committee-forming to tackle something that has been studied multiple times, in Rochester and throughout the country. But this is how the Initiative's leaders have chosen to work, and Brock's right: this crisis didn't occur overnight and we can't end it overnight. If all that prep work leads to success, I'll be among the loudest cheering the results.

Meantime, I'll be an uninvited house skeptic. This crisis is so serious, so deep, and has been building for so many years - and we have tried so many times to address it, and have failed - that we simply can't fail the poor again. There's a need for skepticism and for well-intentioned tire-kicking from some of us standing on the outside.

So let me start with the scope of the initiative. Maybe over time, that will change, as the resource teams and implementation teams get going. And I'm willing to concede that we can't do everything at once. But there's a risk that we'll spend a lot of time and money to come up with solutions for small pieces of mountain-size problems.

I worry especially that the final recommendations will avoid dealing with the tough issues that decades of studies say have led to this crisis.

One concern: In this first stage, the Initiative will focus only on the working poor: poor people 18 or older who worked full time, part time, or seasonally, or were looking for a job during the past year. That effectively rules out the long-term unemployed, a growing number of whom are African-American males who have served time in prison.

Another concern: The report says the Initiative's goal is to "enable sustainable and progressive employment." Possible recommendations, the report says, include job training and support and providing mentors for new hires. But there's no mention of pressing for a minimum-wage increase - a timely issue right now, as Governor Cuomo pushes his proposal for a $15 minimum.

Job training is definitely important. So is mentoring - helping people develop the "soft skills" (showing up for work on time, for instance) that some poor people lack because they're so disconnected from the workforce. But that doesn't address the changes in the US job market that have made post-secondary education essential for many jobs. Many low-skill positions don't pay a living wage.

In his keynote address at a forum on Rochester's poverty crisis in January, Georgetown law professor and poverty expert Peter Edelman drove that point home.

"There are not enough jobs," he said, "and there are not enough good jobs." Wages for half the jobs in the US have been "basically stuck for 40 years," Edelman said.

"This is a structural problem in our economy," Edelman said. "We need to call it what it is and act."

Yes, indeed. And who better to lead that action locally than the leaders and the hundreds of participants in the Anti-Poverty Initiative? As the progress report says, the Initiative "represents an unprecedented collaboration among public, private, and non-profit leaders."

If we want to ensure that poor people have a chance to lift themselves out of poverty, local business, political, and community leaders could join together and announce their support for a higher minimum wage. I'm not seeing any sign that the Initiative hopes to provide leadership in that area, though.

Another concern: The progress report mentions Rochester's concentration of poverty several times. But I worry that the thrust of the Initiative's work will be trying to lessen the impact of concentrated poverty - dealing with the symptoms - not trying to lessen the concentration itself. We'll try to fix poverty in place.

Decades of studies say that living in a high-poverty neighborhood has severe, negative effects, on residents' health, their children's education, their chances for employment. The concentrated poverty itself is destructive. And there is extensive evidence that when poor people are able to move to non-poor neighborhoods, their lives often improve.

An appendix to the progress report lists specific recommendations from the Initiative's eight initial work groups. And some of those recommendations cite the limited housing choices outside of high-poverty neighborhoods. There is mention of the need for more affordable housing and a call for a "countywide affordable housing policy." But the recommendations in that appendix are not necessarily what the Initiative is going to recommend in the end.

And the progress report itself includes this: "A common theme expressed by people impacted by poverty is the desire to continue residing in their current neighborhoods" if those neighborhoods have the services and support their residents need.

Certainly some poor people don't want to move out of the city - or out of the neighborhood they're living in now. They just want their neighborhood to be better and safer than it is. And supporters of affordable suburban housing opportunities aren't advocating that people be forced to move. But some poor people do want to move, and current zoning laws and other restrictions have led to extremely limited low-income housing anywhere except in the city.

If the Initiative fails to focus on countywide affordable housing, it will be shutting off an opportunity that more affluent Rochesterians have. Yes, people might be happy living in concentrated-poverty neighborhoods if they weren't plagued by crime, if services were plentiful and available, if the children in inner-city schools were achieving at the same level as those in Pittsford.

But this community's concentration of poverty is at the root of the problems in those neighborhoods. Concentrated poverty is one of the causes of the problems. And good intentions and all the time and task forces in the universe won't change that.

I think I understand what the Initiative is trying to do by limiting its scope: select a few areas to address, set a few goals that seem achievable, reach those goals successfully, and then address more. Don't over-reach, and don't over-promise. But nine months into what was billed as a bold effort to eliminate poverty in Rochester - an "unprecedented countywide effort" - the Initiative feels heavy on process, systems, and collaboration and light on fundamental change.

I'd be less skeptical if the progress report included a pledge to tackle the hard stuff, if it reflected an understanding of the necessity of challenging fears and vested interests, if it reflected a willingness to challenge the policies - in government and in the private sector - that got us where we are now.

Too much is at stake, poverty is destroying too many people's lives, to do only what seems palatable to the non-poor.

This article appeared in City's print edition with the headline "An uninvited skeptic and the anti-poverty report."

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