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What can we do about our high poverty rate?


Not surprisingly, I got some pushback on last week's column about the fights at the transit center. Some readers disagreed with the core of my argument, that the fights are an outgrowth of the city's high concentration of poverty. There's not much I can say in response, other than to note that numerous studies of urban poverty bear me out.

That doesn't mean that I'm excusing the violence, or that teenagers are helpless to control their anger, or that parents shouldn't do a better job raising their children. But I'm still convinced that because of the profound effect of concentrated poverty, unless we deal with that, we won't make much headway in reducing the fights. (Or, of course, unless we lock everybody up.)

So let me address a reader who complained that I didn't say what we should do about concentrated poverty. I've written about the causes of poverty numerous times since the founding of this publication, as well as the things we need to do to make a meaningful dent in it. But it's worth saying again.

I'll start by repeating this: The issue isn't poverty itself. It's the concentration of poverty: neighborhoods in which over decades and decades, many, many residents are poor and often unemployed. That has a long-lasting, enormously negative effect on many of the people who live there. On the children who grow up there.

Certainly some people can thrive - can, despite the odds, do well in school, get a good job, and become successful. But those odds are huge.

This is simply fact. Numerous studies, by numerous people and institutions, have documented it. If, despite the evidence, you disagree, then talking about remedies doesn't make a lot of sense.

But if you find the evidence valid, then we have plenty to talk about. There's no one solution to concentrated poverty. And nothing we have to do will be simple. But here's a short list of some essential remedies:

Break up the concentration of poverty. Provide more housing subsidies and open more low-income housing in the suburbs so that poor people can live there. Encourage middle and upper-income residents to move to the city.

Raise the income of the working poor. I don't object to the Rochester Business Alliance's initiative to get area employers to hire poor people. But that has to be accompanied with RBA pushing everybody to promise they'll raise the pay of any employees making minimum wage - and to band together to get the state to raise the minimum wage.

Create jobs, and train inner-city city residents for them. This will involve both private-sector and public-sector employers. And it will require training not only in the necessary technical and academic skills but also, in some cases, in workplace "social skills" - things as mundane as getting to work on time.

Increase funding for programs that help boost the education and the social skills of children: Nurse-Family Partnership, early childhood education programs, day care.

Improve public transportation so that inner-city residents can get easily not only to jobs in the city but also to those in the suburbs.

Dramatically reform public education. Combine school districts, create new schools, do whatever it takes to let poor children attend economically and racially integrated schools. Create city schools so exceptional that suburban families line up to get their children enrolled. Improve teacher and administrator training and quality.

A fair number of Rochesterians, by the way, are trying to address some of these things, and that's a hopeful sign. But in the end, success will require an enormous, community-wide effort. And it will take money. A lot of money.Over a long time.

If we think we can do it through volunteer efforts alone, through small initiatives, and on the cheap, we're deluding ourselves. And we're betraying the children of the City of Rochester.