Syracuse policy decisions in 3 key areas problematic for community members
Six in 10 poor blacks and Hispanics in Syracuse, New York, live on a block where they and their neighbors share a grim reality: They live under the poverty line. It’s called “concentrated poverty,” and we in Syracuse have the worst case of it in the nation.
According to Paul A. Jargowsky, a Rutgers University professor, concentrated poverty is defined as census tracts where more than 40 percent of households live below the federal poverty threshold; in late 2013, that figure was $23,000 per year for a family of four.
Nationally, one in four poor blacks, or 25 percent, and nearly one in six poor Hispanics, or 17 percent, live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty — troubling statistics but better than the six in 10 in Syracuse.
Jargowsky published a study last fall titled “The Architecture of Segregation: Civil Unrest, the Concentration of Poverty, and Public Policy,” which called attention to a serious problem that plagues Syracuse — racially concentrated poverty.
Syracuse was ranked No. 1 — the worst in the nation — for concentrated poverty among blacks and Hispanics out of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country.
This jarring statistic in Jargowsky’s study has led to coalitions of organizations and community members actively seeking to rid Syracuse of its No. 1 ranking.
Additionally, the Syracuse area is in a fight to implement policy changes. The concept of policy change is something that Jargowsky stresses in his study. He urges people to work to change problems that create high-poverty neighborhoods. Among necessary changes, based on Jargowsky’s findings: requiring suburbs to build housing for low-income residents so they can escape these city census tracts where every neighbor is poor and so children can go to better schools; providing grocery stores in poor neighborhoods; improving public transportation so low-income residents do not have to commute by bus an hour each way, in some cases, to the suburbs’ typically better-paying jobs.
Three key areas where Syracuse community members are seeking policy change are: jobs, wages and city / county consolidation.
There is a push to keep jobs in Syracuse. The Urban Jobs Task Force, a community group that promotes job creation in the inner city, holds monthly protests at the Inner Harbor over concerns of development tax deals. The protests are held in an attempt to keep jobs for Syracuse residents on the minds of community members and local politicians. The task force has been fighting to keep jobs local. Even while including $44 million in tax exemptions, the deal gives no confirmation that jobs or contracts will go to Syracuse residents. With such tax deals, the group argues, jobs should be reserved for city contractors and residents.
Also on a mission to combat poverty in Syracuse is the Greater Syracuse HOPE. An acronym for healing, opportunity, prosperity and empowerment, Greater Syracuse HOPE is the local anti-poverty initiative for Syracuse and Onondaga County. This coalition grew out of the community’s concern over the release of Jargowsky’s study. Greater Syracuse HOPE wants policy change that will positively affect local jobs.
In our Syracuse Jobs Matter project, we found that people who are unemployed or underemployed often lack resources necessary to find and keep a job. Such resources include transportation, education and working knowledge of the English language. Immigrants struggle as they settle in urban cores, hoping to find affordable housing and access to public transportation.
Central New York’s Fight for $15 Coalition is a local group that is pushing for an increase in minimum wage to $15 an hour. The Coalition challenged 25 Syracuse officials to pledge to live on $97 a day — a typical daily allowance for people who work minimum-wage jobs. The coalition supported the challenge because it showed the difficulty of living on a minimum wage. Many of the participants spent more than the $97 allowance.
In recent weeks, the fight for a higher minimum wage has raged across the country. Following California’s agreement to raise the minimum wage to $15, New York state’s legislature agreed to raise the minimum wage in New York, statewide. Many areas in New York will experience wage increases, but this will take many years. Some parts of the state will not see the minimum wage reach $15, but will stop around $12 or $13. This approval, despite ramifications, is a win for minimum-wage workers in the Syracuse area because they will have access to higher paying jobs.
CITY / COUNTY CONSOLIDATION
A proposal to consolidate city and county government services is one that has been met with much controversy from the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County. Many are wary of the ability of the two governments to share power and resources if the city and county were to merge. Syracuse community members fear that the city of Syracuse will be ignored by Onondaga County officials. “The only thing that is going on here is the hostile takeover of the city of Syracuse," Sheldon Williams, a Syracuse resident, said during a public forum about the consensus proposal at Syracuse City Hall Commons on Feb. 11. He believes state and county officials will usurp power from the city, thus affecting minorities. Thirty percent of the city is minority, while minorities make up only 10 percent of the county. There is a concern that minorities’ voices will be diluted.
NEIGHBORS, NOT NUMBERS
Policy is a main concern of Jargowsky and Syracuse community members because policy affects so many people. While working on the Syracuse Jobs Matter project, we’ve heard stories from many Syracuse residents who have struggled with employment. Many of them agree that Syracuse needs changes in policy. They also urge everyone to remember that they are humans before they are employees, and that they often are doing the best they can.
Francine Whitman is an example. Formerly living on the streets, Whitman landed herself a job, has regained custody of her son and is celebrating the daily successes in her life — this is about more than changing policy. “I am a firm believer that, considering where I was a year ago, I was homeless, living outside, with no children, and not a whole lot of hope — that if you start with your small successes and build upon them, you can really get anywhere you want in life. … My point is that, if you want to do anything, you can do it if you apply yourself, and believe in yourself and surround yourself with people that believe in you.”
Syracuse’s only black master plumber, NaDonte Jones, explains that finding a job is more than a matter of raising the minimum wage. It takes effort on the part of those seeking employment. “It’s hard. But exhaust every resource you have. You might have to do things you said you never would simply because of pride, but as long as you take that into consideration, and as long as you keep pushing, you’ll be all right. But if you keep doing what you need to do you can eventually get to that point.”
Bringing jobs to the people of Syracuse and ridding the city of its No. 1 ranking will take joint effort by policymakers, job seekers and community members.
Lanika Mabrey, a prevention health advocate at ACR Health, pooled her resources and pulled herself out of unemployment. She urges others to do the same. “People who are unemployed have to not only deal with the fact that there are very little resources — there is an internal process that goes on as well. You use the time to maybe volunteer and strengthen the skill sets you have and highlight the skill sets you have. And you got to use that time to connect with people that can connect you to opportunities; you got to be active in this process.”