As disturbing as it is, the report that Buffalo has the nation’s third-highest rate of childhood poverty should have come as no surprise. After all, the city had already been tagged as the nation’s third-poorest after the 2010 census; it would have been odd if its childhood poverty rate were substantially different.
Still, the impact of that report remains troubling. Poverty’s radiating shock waves affect nutrition, health, emotional and intellectual development, education, joblessness and more. The National Center for Children Living in Poverty concludes that 46.8 percent of Buffalo children – nearly one-half – live in poverty, based on census data for 2011. The report, based on one-year census data for 2011, ranked 25 cities with populations of more than 250,000 people.
The only places worse off were two other Rust Belt cities, Cleveland, with 53.9 percent of children in poverty, and Detroit, where the figure reached a staggering 57.3 percent.
These are figures that are unsustainable. It is all but impossible to raise a generation of productive, engaged, forward-looking citizens when they have been bound for so long by the chains of poverty. Thus, for reasons beyond those of charity and morality, the people of Buffalo – and, indeed, all of Western New York – have a compelling interest is bringing those numbers down.
The good news is that some significant efforts are under way. First and foremost, there is development in Buffalo, the kind that can produce further growth, in entertainment and tourism by the waterfront, and in health care at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Growth creates jobs and jobs smother poverty.
No less important, new efforts are being made to improve education in Buffalo. A new School Board may be more focused on the task at hand. More intriguingly, private-sector organizations have come to Buffalo to further that urgent task, among them, Say Yes to Education, Promise Neighborhood, the Hillside Work-Scholarship program sponsored by Wegmans Family Charitable Foundation, and the nascent Buffalo Arts and Technology Center. Education feeds prosperity.
Unfortunately, there are also obstacles, and significant ones. The Buffalo Teachers Federation is hindering the work of improving education in Buffalo through its obstinate refusal to agree to a reasonable teacher evaluation system. Not only does that make it difficult to improve results – improvement begins with measurement – but it threatens the school district with the loss of millions of dollars in badly needed financial aid. Indeed, the destructive relationship between the union and the school district generally militates against the students who, too often, are pawns in the game.
In Washington, conservative interests are threatening nutrition programs, in particular the one known for generations as food stamps. The reason they cite is the need to reduce the federal budget deficit, which is indeed a real need. But so is feeding children. Republicans need to temper their enthusiasm for deficit reduction with a recognition that some spending is not only necessary, but over the long term, wise.
This will be a long slog. Buffalo’s children didn’t fall this far overnight and they won’t be rescued overnight. But their plight is Buffalo’s. When School Board members or union leaders or members of Congress feed their own political needs, they need to balance that against the sin being committed against the 46.8 percent.