Buffalo News, August 30, 2007: Buffalo falls to second-poorest big city in U.S., with a poverty rate of nearly 30 percent

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By Jay Rey and Mark Sommer –

Buffalo is the second-poorest big city in the nation, new estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau show. Nearly 30 percent of its residents are considered poor.

Only Detroit has higher poverty among American cities with populations of more than 250,000.

While sobering, the numbers don۪t begin to tell the whole story.

For that, you need to look at the faces of the parents struggling to afford school supplies.

Or listen to the single mother living on child support while attending college.

Or talk to the frustrated retiree earning less than $10,000 a year in Social Security benefits.

“There is poverty in Buffalo, but nobody is doing anything about it,” said James Murdock, 67.

Murdock retired from his job at a car wash due to illness and now collects $740 a month in Social Security. He lives on the top floor of a church on Broadway.

“They۪re not doing anything to bring industry back into Buffalo,” Murdock lamented Wednesday, “and it seems like nobody۪s worried about it.”

Buffalo۪s poverty isn۪t an easy situation to crawl out from under.

New estimates also show Buffalo۪s median income of $27,850 is the third lowest in the U.S. among large cities, just ahead of Miami and Cleveland.

Meanwhile, the nation۪s median income is on the rise, and the poverty rate actually declined for the first time this decade, dipping slightly to 12.3 percent, according to the Census estimates.

The poverty rate for the entire Buffalo Niagara region is 14.2 percent.

It۪s no secret upstate New York۪s economy has fared poorly compared with the rest of the nation, said Richard Deitz, regional economist at the Buffalo branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Its cities, he said, are being hardest hit.

The region isn۪t growing in population, Deitz said, and as people have left Buffalo for the suburbs, problems like poverty are being concentrated in the city. Buffalo۪s not alone.

While Rochester and Syracuse weren۪t ranked among the nation۪s largest cities, the poverty rates in those two cities are almost identical to Buffalo۪s. In Rochester, 30 percent of the people are poor, while in Syracuse it۪s 29.6 percent.

Buffalo۪s poverty rate rose sharply from 26.6 percent in 2005 to 29.9 percent last year.

The jump may have to do with the Census Bureau including group quarters like nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in its samples for the first time last year, said Kathryn A. Foster, director of the Regional Institute at the University at Buffalo.

“We۪ve been chronically high on this list, so it۪s not a shock,” Foster said. “The economy hasn۪t gotten that much better, and the kind of jobs that have emerged whether in retail or the casino industry are low-wage jobs, so we۪re not pushing up the income levels.”

One of the biggest concerns, Foster said, is the children.

“The children are the biggest portion that we serve in local food pantries,” said Clem Eckert, president of the Food Bank of Western New York. “Forty percent are children, and that number is pretty constant.”

When it comes to children, Buffalo again ranks second in the nation behind Detroit, with nearly 43 percent of the city۪s kids living in poverty, census estimates show.

“On a regular basis, we see more families who have more needs,” said Brenda McDuffie, president and chief executive of the Buffalo Urban League. “There is a lot of despair out there.”

Citizens Bank donated 700 backpacks, stuffed with school supplies, to local kids Wednesday, distributing them at nonprofit agencies, including the Buffalo Urban League.

Saving a family $25 on a book bag helps, McDuffie said.

And parents were appreciative.

“[Schools] want a lot of stuff for the kids with the pencils, the crayons, the color pencils, everything so it helps a lot, especially for a single parent,” said Kyshawna Williams, who has three children.

“Right now, I can hardly afford school clothes,” said Kristina Young, who lives in Black Rock with her three children. “I brought [my children] so they can get book bags and start the school year right and have some supplies.”

Buffalo schools struggle to teach students coming to class faced with these other issues at home.

“It۪s difficult, but not impossible to do,” Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams said. “I don۪t use poverty as a deterrent in this business.”

Buffalo needs to build its middle class, and education is the way to do that, he said.

“Education is the key to turning cities around,” Williams said. “If we don۪t have a good school system, the poverty rate will remain at that level.”

Mayor Byron W. Brown said he is not surprised that the figures document severe poverty in Buffalo.

“That۪s why we۪ve been working so hard to bring people into the mainstream of Buffalo۪s economy,” Brown said Wednesday. “I think we۪re taking steps that will help to reverse these alarming numbers.”

Brown cited ongoing efforts to tackle illiteracy, place young people in jobs and offer job training to residents. He said there are also new efforts to encourage graduating college students to stay in a region that is working hard to grow good jobs in some sectors. He thinks Buffalo۪s affordable real estate which has made national headlines also will help to strengthen the economy.

But the mayor stressed that he is not downplaying the city۪s poverty problem. He said more must be done to combat substance abuse, a scourge that he believes is a major contributor to poverty. Brown also encouraged people to take advantage of existing job training and placement programs.

And despite the city۪s dubious ranking as the second most impoverished city in the nation, the mayor remains convinced that Buffalo is on the upswing.

He said since the Census data was compiled for 2005 and 2006, there have been numerous encouraging signs. He said there are $3.5 billion in economic development projects in the pipeline or recently completed.

“Buffalo is absolutely turning a corner,” Brown said. “I think the city is moving in the right direction. When these figures are released again, I think we۪ll see a decline in those numbers.”

But over at the food pantry on Wohlers Avenue, people aren۪t as optimistic.

John Belcher, 73, stops by two or three times a week for bread, canned foods and, if he۪s lucky, there will be a little meat for him to take home.

“Good thing they got this pantry or I wouldn۪t make ends meet,” said Belcher, a retiree.

Rosa Gibson delivers food to quite a few elderly people and shut-ins in the same situation.

“It۪s not just the East Side of Buffalo,” said Gibson, a community activist. “I deliver food all over the city. I get the same thing in each direction I go in. It۪s sad.”

News Staff Reporter Brian Meyer contributed to this report.

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