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NY cities struggle against child poverty

Solvejg Wastvedt
The Broome County Council of Churches plans to open a wellness center at its headquarters in Binghamton in October.

Child poverty rates in four upstate New York cities are more than double state averages. The issue spurred an anti-poverty campaign in Rochester earlier this year, and now Binghamton is getting on board, too.

Johnson City School District Superintendent Mary Kay Frys spoke at a public meeting two state legislators held in Binghamton recently. She says there’s a poverty crisis in the district.

“We have had elementary students dumpster dive in restaurant receptacles in the village in order to get food that has been thrown out,” she says. “There’s never enough.”

Frys says teachers and coaches often feed students in class and before practice. “But how much longer can we expect the staff of Johnson City schools to be their parent, their protector, their provider as well as their teacher, while taking care of their own families?” she asked.

Questions like Frys’ spurred the meeting and an anti-poverty campaign headed by the Broome County United Way. The organization will use a $100,000 state grant to find a new approach to the problem. Director Alan Hertel says they’ll gather neighborhood-level data to help direct what they do.

Joe Sellepack of the Broome County Council of Churches says too often the area’s anti-poverty approaches get stuck on an old economic reality.

“We always had these large employers who came in and gave jobs,” he says. “And we’re somewhat captive to the idea that a large employer is going to come in and rescue us.”

Sellepack says people need to become entrepreneurs instead. He takes that literally: his group is starting a Southside Wellness Center in Binghamton that will offer financial literacy classes alongside a traditional food pantry. Low-income people will be members instead of clients, with input into operations. They’ll choose which services they receive from a menu that includes yoga classes and career training.

“It’s treating a person as a whole person: body, soul, spirit, that kind of thing,” Sellepack says. “It’s more than just treating them as a hungry belly.”

Hertel says their task is bigger than anyone knows. He says the federal definition of poverty is hugely inaccurate.

“A married couple with two children at home needs to earn less than $23,600 a year to qualify as being below the poverty level,” he says. “That’s just kind of crazy.”

A Rutgers University project puts the bare minimum for a family of four between $40,000 and $70,000 a year, depending on location. Among other factors, that accounts for child care, an issue community leaders named as one of upstate New York’s biggest challenges.

Solvejg Wastvedt grew up in western Pennsylvania and graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Over the summer, she served in Los Angeles as an intern on NPR's National Desk. Plus, before coming to Upstate New York, Solvejg worked at the Minneapolis community radio station KFAI. When she isn't reporting the news, Solvejg enjoys running and exploring hiking trails.