A Needed Assault on Poverty

Father Maher's commentary, titled "A needed assault on poverty," appeared in the Albany Times Union on Dec. 10, 2014.

Despite recent economic indicators that sound encouraging, poverty remains a major problem in the United States.

The lower national unemployment rate does not paint the most accurate picture of the millions of Americans who remain below the poverty level, whether working or not.

The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality reports that since the 1980s there has been a weakening in the jobs-poverty relationship. Having a job does not necessarily mean less poverty, as it did in the 1960s, when poverty declined as employment grew. During the current expansion, people are largely obtaining part-time work; wages are stagnant and prices are rising. The median household income in the U.S. in 2013 was $51,939, just $180 more than in 2012 ($51,759), or $3.41 per week. Wages have not significantly outpaced inflation and the basic cost of living.

Poverty increased from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 14.5 percent in 2013 (19.9 percent for children, up from 18 percent). According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 26.4 million people between 18 and 64 years old were poor, compared with 4.2 million among those 65 and older, a reversal from years past when poverty was more prevalent among the elderly.

Solutions? One is surely the expansion of public/private sector initiatives to assist the working poor, combined with increases in wages, particularly at the lower end of the scale, as well as employment opportunities. And higher education can play a role in this.  

With the talents of faculty, students, administrators, staff and alumni, universities can act as a bridge to people living in poverty. They would utilize the gifts of teaching, research, service and resource development to open campuses to families and establish a vital presence in communities.

In Niagara Falls, where poverty has existed for decades, we have activated several initiatives. Niagara University’s Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M. Institute for Civic Engagement is the primary resource for local entities looking to partner with students, faculty and staff. Students work with the university’s four flagship service programs, and with the Niagara Beautification Commission, an anti-graffiti project, and YouthWorks’ home repair initiative for senior citizens.

We recently opened a Family Literacy Center where graduate education students work on community literacy issues with diagnostic and remediation services, a book club and a facility containing SMART boards, iPads, computers, literacy apps and nearly 7,000 books. Additionally, Niagara, working with multiple partners like the Help Me Grow Foundation, has made early childhood intervention and brain development a central strategy in assisting children and families living in poverty.

The recently launched Niagara Global Tourism Institute will be a high-tech innovation center for tourism in downtown Niagara Falls. Both a learning space for students and a center where innovation in tourism will be developed to help market and develop Niagara, the institute is designed to bring new businesses (hotels, attractions, etc.) to help the industry and the community.

There is historical precedence for this kind of stimulus. In the late 1990s, under President Judith Rodin, the University of Pennsylvania helped to revive West Philadelphia. work that the Chronicle of Higher Education called “a national model of constructive town-gown interaction and partnership.” According to Governing.com, the city of Birmingham, Ala., would have collapsed when U.S. Steel left, had it not been for the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

This kind of urban renewal assistance does not have to come from universities only. Corporations can help, too, as Honda and Mercedes have in Birmingham and the automotive industry has in Detroit, which will soon emerge from bankruptcy.

The bottom line is that organizations with a stake in cities and towns ought to commit to innovation and action for the sake of their communities’ economic livelihood. Investing in our communities is vital to our economies, and government cannot do it alone.