New York's statewide poverty rate is 16 percent, but in upstate cities, that number doubles. In Syracuse, more than 1/3 of the residents live in poverty. Syracuse also ranks the highest nationwide for its concentration of minorities in poverty.
The picture isn’t much better in Oswego County, which has a poverty rate of 19 percent. That prompted county officials to commission a study on the problems and potential solutions to the crisis. After more than a year of analysis, the results found that Oswego County lost more than 2,000 manufacturing jobs over the last decade, doubling the amount of residents who are now on food stamps.
Those residents are the target of the county's new anti-poverty task force, which is a collection of public, private and nonprofit partners. Task force steering committee chairman Roy Reehil said collaboration has been the key from the beginning.
"By the nature of the scope of the problem, without having all sorts of interactions with every single team that we have created, we weren’t going to be effective,” Reehil said. “Government isn’t the answer."
The plague of poverty in upstate New York has caught the attention of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. His 2016 agenda calls for investing $25 million in programs like Oswego County’s that join government and nonprofit entities on projects aimed at improving the quality and efficiency of services that address poverty. The funding would go to ten upstate communities.
Sherry Tomasky, public affairs director with Hunger Solutions New York, which connects people in poverty with food stamps. She said the program is a great way to address the 15 percent of upstate households who cannot provide enough food for their families.
"We’re very pleased that there is an anti-poverty initiative that shows a commitment and consistency on the part of the governor and the state on anti-poverty and hunger when other states have not done so,” Tomasky said.
Cuomo's proposal is modeled after Rochester's anti-poverty task force, which the governor assembled last year. Evan Dawson, host of Rochester’s “Connections” show on WXXI Public Radio, said while the program has increased communication between the government and community groups, there's no reason the model should be scaled across upstate until some measurable success is achieved.
"They feel like there are some early findings that will help shape what they want to do moving forward,” Dawson said. “Have they laid out a full road map and plan? No."
Dawson said the project has been successful in identifying the problems plaguing Rochester, like structural racism, but the initiative has yet to introduce solutions.
“How are you going to start making a difference with that,” Dawson asked. “What are the hard things you are going to ask of people to start changing that structural racism that obviously disadvantages a big part of our community? We haven’t seen anything!"
On this movement, Oswego County may now be ahead of the curve. Reehil said that is important because the proposed state funding could now go much further in helping with the execution of the county’s plan.
"Instead of throwing money at studies, we can start putting the money into specific programs that we think are going to change things on the ground,” Reehil said. “We could certainly use help from the state with some money to do it because we’re doing it by the bootstraps here."