Poverty: Understanding the Problem, and Proposing Solutions from City Government (August 2017)

Our topic for August 2017 is poverty: what it is, how it’s affecting the city of Buffalo, and what city government can do to address it.

Featured Essays:

Betty Jean Grant: Reflection on Buffalo’s Poverty Rate & Concrete Steps to Alleviate Poverty in the City of Buffalo
Mark J.F. Schroeder: Poverty in Buffalo: A Problem That Needs a Plan
Mark Zirnheld: “The Poor You Will Always Have With You”: Another Reflection on Poverty

There are many ways to measure “poverty.” The U.S. Census Bureau estimates are a good place to start. According to the latest (July 2016) estimates, 31.4 percent of Buffalo residents are living in poverty. Five-year estimates for the city show that the condition worsens for female-led households without an adult male present – among this group, 42.8 percent live in poverty.

To contextualize these numbers further, consider that, according to the same estimates, only 24.6 percent of Buffalo residents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher (at a time when the pay gap between people with a high school degree and people with a four-year degree is wider than ever), and 9.6 have not completed a high school diploma or GED equivalent. Another 9.6 percent of Buffalo residents under the age of 65 do not have any form of health insurance.

These numbers are based on the Official Poverty Measure (OPM), but, as Jeff Madrick pointed out recently in the New York Review of Books,

the OPM is a deficient measure in almost every way. It tells the public little about how materially deprived the poor are, how much income they actually have, how reduced their children’s chances are of developing skills for climbing into the middle class, or, most important, how many truly poor there are in America.

Wade into alternative measures, though, and you are wading into alternative numbers. These may flesh out one’s understanding of poverty in the United States, but they don’t help one’s understanding. To understand poverty, we can only live it, or come as close to living it as possible.

Readers of Esquire might remember when George Saunders lived in a “Tent City.” Buffalonians might think of Pastor Johns, who since 1999 has spent one week per year living with the city’s homeless, or of other extraordinary individuals. But most of us are – by this measure – ordinary. Few of us have these experiences; therefore, few of understand the poverty that, according to census estimates, affects nearly a third of the city’s residents – but which really affects many, many more.

We only know what we see – and the effects of poverty are often hidden in plain site.

Ideally, though, our elected officials would spend much of their time thinking about this problem, and on the steps that they might take to address it. Because 2017 is an election year in Buffalo, we invited the all three of the front-running candidates in the Democratic mayoral primary – incumbent Mayor Byron Brown, Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, and City Comptroller Mark Schroeder – to write essays on poverty in Buffalo and on their solutions. Betty Jean Grant and Mark Schroeder agreed. On August 10, you can read their responses here:

Betty Jean Grant: Reflection on Buffalo’s Poverty Rate & Concrete Steps to Alleviate Poverty in the City of Buffalo
Mark J.F. Schroeder: Poverty in Buffalo: A Problem That Needs a Plan

You can also watch our highlights of the first mayoral primary debate, and interviews with Betty Jean Grant and Mark Schroeder.

Video Highlights and Interviews

Mark Zirnheld, CEO and Director of the Society of St. Vincent dePaul in Buffalo, approached the subject from a very different angle, unpacking the statement, attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, that “the poor will always be among us.

Mark Zirnheld: “The Poor You Will Always Have With You”: Another Reflection On Poverty

For more information on how the Census Bureau measures poverty:

How Census Measures Poverty[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]

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