Reducing poverty in Erie County is focus of new community advisory panel
One is a University at Buffalo professor with expertise on distressed urban neighborhoods and the redevelopment of shrinking cities. Another runs a West Side health center whose main clients are refugees and others of low income. A third is chairman of an agency dedicated to meeting the needs of the rural poor.
The three are among seven appointed Thursday to a new committee tasked with advising Erie County on ways to combat poverty countywide.
According to County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, reducing poverty will be accomplished, in part, by keeping a sustained focus on the problem, even as the county’s overall economic fortunes begin to look up after decades on a downward spiral.
“Although numerous indicators show that the county as a whole is better off than it was a few short years ago, our community cannot truly be prosperous if a significant portion of our community is unable to take advantage of these opportunities,” Poloncarz said.
The announcement came a day after new U.S. Census Bureau data showed a slight decrease in the percentage of Buffalo children living in poverty to 47.3 percent last year, down from 50.6 percent in 2013.
The overall poverty rate of 15.2 percent in Erie County was unchanged between 2013 and 2014, while for senior citizens countywide, the poverty rate had a slight uptick to 17.3 percent last year, from 16.2 in 2013.
The new figures show that Buffalo’s children, as a whole, remain the third-poorest among kids in the nation’s large cities.
“Right now, to be poor in Buffalo means to live in a dilapidated and rundown neighborhood or … living in poor housing. It means having limited access to health care services and very often dying prematurely. It means not getting an adequate education,” said Henry L. Taylor Jr., founding director of UB’s Center for Urban Studies and one of those appointed to the committee.
“We may not be able to eliminate poverty, but we can eliminate what poverty means in a place like Buffalo.”
The new committee is, in essence, the re-establishment of the long-defunct Welfare Advisory Board, which is required under the County Charter. Poloncarz called for the establishment of the committee as part of his Initiatives for a Stronger Community plan that was released in March.
“The Welfare Advisory Board operated more as an entity that looked at how we can better provide in the context of the one program related to welfare, and how we could get information out to more people about what they may qualify for,” he said.
The new committee, on the other hand, will meet quarterly with officials from the county’s Departments of Social Services, Health, Mental Health and Senior Services to see how each can more effectively combat poverty using the resources they already have.
“Each has a niche area that they work in,” Poloncarz said of the seven appointees.
“What we want them to do is to come together to not only make suggestions how we can do things better, but also let us know when we’re doing things right and where we have shortfalls in areas that we haven’t even focused on before.”
Poloncarz added, “I think the key is to bring in individuals who are not beholden to any elected official or, for that matter, commissioner, and really tell us what we need to hear, even though it may be something we don’t want to hear.”
One of the appointees is the Rev. Kinzer M. Pointer, pastor of Agape Fellowship Baptist Church, who lauded the effort and noted that there was little will to reconstitute the old Welfare Advisory Board under previous administrations.
“There has been some thoughtful consideration on the part of the county executive, which entails a level of courage, because no one really wanted to talk about it,” Pointer said.
Other appointees are: Anna Falicov, chairwoman of the Coalition for Economic Justice, which focuses on creating good jobs and equitable development and advocating workers’ rights; Dr. Myron Glick, chief medical officer of Jericho Road Community Health Center, which provides culturally sensitive medical treatment targeted to refugees and low-income residents; and the Rev. Frank Cerny, chairman of Rural Outreach Center board in East Aurora, which focuses on poor people in the county’s rural areas.
Also appointed to the poverty committee are:
Dr. Yvonne S. Minor-Ragan, president of Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, a public-private partnership aimed at improving economic conditions and schools in a 97-block area around Bailey Avenue just south of UB’s South Campus in Buffalo; and Marlies A. Wesolowski, executive director of the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center, which provides a range of human services in the Broadway Market area.
“This is not just going to be focused on the East Side or the West Side of Buffalo, but the entire county,” Poloncarz emphasized.
Erie County Legislature Chairman John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park, said he had not been apprised of the new committee but agreed that poverty in Erie County needs to be addressed aggressively.
“I hope it isn’t just window dressing for the sake of forming a committee,” Mills said.