Dr. Danielle Laraque-Arena, the new president of SUNY Upstate Medical University, has been vocal that her institution be part of the solution for Syracuse’s concentrated poverty.
Since her inauguration in mid-April, Laraque-Arena has visited potential community partners to find out what policies and programs currently are in place.
She already has met with members of Syracuse Housing Authority, a campus neighbor; CenterState CEO, a conglomeration of economic development strategists; and the Onondaga Nation.
“We are asking the community what their health needs are first and not presuming we know what they need,” she said, noting that Upstate is fortunate to have a faculty member from the Nation, Dr. Brian Thompson, on staff.
Thompson, who serves as assistant dean for diversity and is an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Upstate, has clinical interests in Native American health care and underserved patient populations.
“Next we will ask what we can provide, as far as epidemiology, health assessments and experts to help answer their questions,” said Laraque-Arena, who is an expert in child abuse, injury prevention and providing care to underserved communities. “I believe it is very important to have a health perspective that is grounded by the people that will be affected by those plans.”
Other partners are a natural fit. Among Laraque-Arena’s priorities: Syracuse University, other hospitals, community-based organizations, community leaders who advocate for awareness of poverty issues, and elected officials who have the ability to address policies.
Syracuse, New York, was ranked No. 1 for concentrated poverty among blacks and Hispanics out of 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country, according to a study released in fall 2015 by Paul A. Jargowsky, a fellow with The Century Foundation. His report, “The Architecture of Segregation: Civil Unrest, the Concentration of Poverty, and Public Policy,” addresses solutions in terms of policy choices.
The Syracuse Jobs Matter team found out from interviews with community action members in Syracuse that policy-driven solutions are key. Laraque-Arena agrees.
“Some solutions may not be that complicated,” she said, “but our system in place may make it complicated to implement.”
Laraque-Arena identifies the following as some achievable solutions: access to affordable housing, nutritious foods, preschool and after-school care for children.
“We must not be at odds at providing those solutions,” she said, “but [all the partners involved] must complement each other.”
She says an example of a policy change that had a huge effect on poverty is the Social Security Act. “It implemented universal coverage for those 65 and older, a population very much impacted by poverty,” she said.
Signed into law in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the act was the first federal assistance for the elderly during the time of the Great Depression, when poverty rates among senior citizens exceeded 50 percent. According to the Cato Institute, the legislation also offered compensation for unemployed workers, federal matching funds for old-age assistance, maternal and child welfare, public health, aid to dependent children and assistance for the blind.
While poverty rates for seniors plummeted, other groups have not been so lucky. “We changed the landscape for the elderly,” Laraque-Arena said. “But we have not translated that for all populations.”
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, Laraque-Arena immigrated to the United States in 1962 at the age of 7. She said poverty was still quite visible in Queens, where she grew up, but that the greatest factor in her success was coming from an educated family and having parents who valued education.
“While we didn’t have money, education is a very powerful tool,” she said. “Both my parents were well-educated.”
Laraque-Arena attended public schools in Queens and started at Fordham University, which she attended at nearly no expense using tuition remission because her father taught at Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx. She transferred in her fourth year to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and continued there for medical school after winning a full scholarship.
“I had access to education that allowed me to move forward,” she said.
Poverty has a pervasive effect on people’s education, health and jobs, she says
“I was always very aware culturally of the issues of poverty and the multiple effects it can have on life chances,” Laraque-Arena said. “It’s going to take a whole system approach to make improvements.”