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Anti-poverty group zeros-in on city neighborhoods


The Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative at United Way will start pilot programs in adult mentoring and early childhood support in two Rochester neighborhoods this year with the goal of eventually scaling up the programs to serve the entire region.

The chosen neighborhoods should be announced soon, says Leonard Brock, the Initiative's director. Those in contention include Beechwood, Marketview Heights, and the East Main, Mustard, and Atlantic Avenue neighborhood.

Driving the work will be the Initiative's own report, which came out last September, and a newly released report from IBM.

The City of Rochester was one of 16 winners nationwide of an IBM Smarter Cities grant which sends IBM executives to cities to help them address critical issues ranging from jobs to energy to poverty. The executives were in Rochester this past October, and their report came out last week.

The highly-touted Anti-Poverty Initiative, spurred by Governor Andrew Cuomo, was founded last year. Its goal is to reduce poverty in the Rochester area by 50 percent over 15 years.

The interventions are critical; Rochester has the second-highest rate of poverty and the highest rate of childhood poverty of similar-sized cities in the nation. And poverty, childhood poverty, and extreme poverty continue to grow.

There are 32,650 people in Monroe County who are considered working poor, Brock says — 18,687 of those are in the city. For nonworking poor, it's 43,225 in the county, he says, and 24,326 in the city.

The working poor are people who are working part time, full time, part of the year, or have been looking for work for the last 12 to 18 months, he says.

Brock says that the IBM report supports and reinforces the findings and strategies of the Anti-Poverty Initiative. One of IBM's recommendations, for example, is for the city to create urban villages that would address housing, commercial and business investment, transportation, and education in a designated area.

That fits with the Anti-Poverty Initiative's finding, Brock says, that people don't want to leave their neighborhoods to access support services; they want the services to come to them. That's the idea behind the neighborhood pilot programs.

The selected neighborhoods will be the ones with the most challenges, Brock says, but with enough of a foundation in place for the Anti-Poverty Initiative to build on. The analogy he uses is that it will be the neighborhoods with the biggest fires, but that are also closest to the water.

The Anti-Poverty Initiative is working with the City of Rochester to determine the cost of the programs, Brock says. The anti-poverty effort began last year with $500,000 in seed money from New York State, and it received another $6 million in the state budget. Brock is also hopeful that the Initiative will get money from the $500 million that the region recently won through a state competition. The region's plan to tackle poverty was a key part of its application to the contest, he says.

The IBM report, though, puts much of the onus for easing poverty on the City of Rochester. Each of the report's 13 recommendations names the party that should take responsibility for it, and in most of the cases, that party is the city government, which could be taken as an invitation for the county, the private sector, and others to wash their hands of the problem.

But Brock says that may be because the IBM effort was a city initiative. Partnerships with other governments and the private sector are critical, he says, and an important part of the Anti-Poverty Initiative's work. Representatives of the state, Monroe County, and the city are on the Initiative's steering committee.

Brock questioned IBM's finding that of the 96.5 percent of people who are able to get out of poverty, 30 percent fall back within three years and 50 percent within five years. That can't be true in Rochester, he says, where poverty numbers are rising; the numbers don't add up.

"That certainly can't be the case locally, but I don't even think that's the case nationally," he says. "I think the graph was a misinterpretation."

It is true, though, Brock says, that if you take the long view, you see that it's the same families bouncing over and under the poverty line. Year to year it changes, he says, but long term, it's the same people.

The IBM report, which is dense and heavy with jargon, also makes it sound like the Anti-Poverty Initiative has been around for a while and is somehow falling short, necessitating additional efforts. Neither is true, Brock says.

"We're not a direct service provider," he says. "And more importantly, we're new."

Overall, Brock says, IBM did a good job and the report will be a valuable tool for the Anti-Poverty Initiative.

"I think they did a really good job listening to the concerns of the neighborhood residents as well as the institutional partners that provide services within those neighborhoods," he says.

Report recommendations

The 64-page IBM report attaches short, medium, and long-term actions to each of its 13 recommendations. Specific costs are not included. Instead, the report gives an idea of the range of the estimated cost, from low to high.

The city must do a better job, the report says, of coordinating and integrating services to people in need, so that they don't have to seek out services at multiple places, which can lead to gaps in service or overlapping services. And the effectiveness of services should be based on real results and not, for example, on how many people a particular program serves, the report says.

Eligibility criteria should be standardized, the report says, to make it easier for people to apply for and receive services. Right now, people must apply to different agencies with different criteria.

Too many city residents pay too much of their income in rent, and the city should review rent rates, the reports says, and implement "a combination of realistic rent options and supported home-ownership schemes."

Other recommendations deal with engaging neighborhood leadership in poverty-reduction efforts; reaching out to people in poverty instead of waiting for them to engage the system; and developing a complete profile of each person served by programs to better monitor their needs and track results.