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Yet another challenge for the anti-poverty folks 

(One of an occasional series on Rochester's anti-poverty efforts.)

The scene outside RochesterWorks one cold, drizzly afternoon last week was pretty impressive: dozens of teenagers were waiting in line. And cars, bumper to bumper, were bringing more.

They kept coming, from up the street and from around the corner, where parents waited in cars.... The teenagers - more than 300 of them by the end of the afternoon - were dropping off identification, work permits, and other documents in the hopes of landing a summer job.

RochesterWorks provides free employment and job training services, among them a Summer Youth Employment Program. The teenagers who land a job will work for area businesses, non-profits, and others for six weeks, earning minimum wage, learning, and getting work experience and resume cred. Employers don't foot the bill; the salaries are paid for with federal funds.

The program is open to young people 14 to 21 years old, and they have to be in middle school or high school. There are income-eligibility limits, so many of the participants are low-income city residents who may otherwise find it hard to get a job.

For many of them, says RochesterWorks communications specialist Ruthann Campbell, this is the first work experience. And these are real jobs - computer work, hospitality, clerical - not gofer jobs with make-do assignments. Ninety-five percent of last year's participants successfully completed their summer job, Campbell says; some of the remaining five percent dropped out of the program because they got other jobs.

The 300 teenagers lining up that afternoon were among about 3700 who had turned in resumes for this summer's program. How many jobs will be available for them? RochesterWorks doesn't know yet, Campbell says; they're always looking for more employers to participate. But last year only 900 young people were employed through the program.

The same week that RochesterWorks was meeting with the young job seekers, the Brookings Institution released yet another disturbing report with a particular relevance to Rochester.

The subject this time was "the growing distance between people and jobs in metropolitan America." Throughout the country, says Brookings, jobs are moving away from where people live. It's true in cities and in suburbs, but the problem is most acute in high-poverty census tracts.

The job migration, says Brookings, is doing serious damage. For one thing, when employers move out of a city or a suburb, it affects the tax base. It also reduces the number of retail services residents have nearby.

And it obviously has a major effect on residents' job opportunities - particularly if they're poor.

"People who live closer to jobs are more likely to work," says the Brookings report. "They also face shorter job searches and spells of joblessness."

And while the report notes that job proximity isn't the only challenge poor residents face in getting a job, "living closer to jobs increases the likelihood of working and leaving welfare. Proximity matters for lower-income, lower-skill workers in particular because they tend to be more constrained by the cost of housing and commuting."

Nationally, the number of jobs close to residents declined by 6 percent between 2000 and 2012. In the 96 metro areas that Brookings studied, the decline was a bit more: 7 percent.

But in the sprawling Greater Rochester area as a whole, the decline was 11.7 percent. In the concentrated-poverty neighborhoods of the City of Rochester, it was more than 12 percent - and in some neighborhoods, it was over 22 percent.

Last week, the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative - the big new effort to eliminate poverty - announced the members of its steering committee. All 26 of them need to read the Brookings report.

As I've said before, I worry that the Anti-Poverty Initiative will do little more than tinker around the edges. Its leaders insist that won't happen, and maybe it won't. But our poverty problem didn't spring up just last year. Poverty and its destructive concentration have been building in Rochester for decades.

It's just gotten worse - because we haven't been willing to do the hard things. We haven't even talked about the hard things. We've tried to eradicate poverty with programs, with agency "cooperation," not with systemic changes.

What changes and what hard things?

We need to concentrate development and job creation in the city, for one thing, so that the neediest residents have a better chance at employment. Stop the sprawl-fostering competition for development between the city and its suburbs. Stop subsidizing sprawl. Get suburban leaders to agree that creating a strong economic core for the region - creating a strong city - is in everybody's interest.

Another: raise the minimum wage so that employed poor people will be at least slightly less poor.

But that won't be enough. The Anti-Poverty leaders will find a particularly sobering warning in the Brookings Report: For some people, job proximity isn't the biggest challenge. Poor and minority residents may stay unemployed "even when they live close to jobs," says the report. "For instance, for poor residents living in areas of concentrated poverty, the positive effects of job proximity diminish or can disappear altogether."

Diminish or can disappear altogether.

Because many lack the education and skill to get a job. Countering that will require strong schools. Early childhood education.Parenting support.Extensive job training.

That'll cost money, both public and private. And it'll take enormous changes - in government, in schools, in business practices.

In her State of the City address in February, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said something that should be read aloud before every meeting of the Anti-Poverty steering committee:

"The best way to move children out of poverty is to ensure that they have access to a quality education and that their parents have access to sustainable, living-wage jobs."

Warren's absolutely right.

And tinkering won't do it. Only dealing with the hard things will.

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