Niagara Gazette

March 2, 2014

POVERTY IN NIAGARA: 'Culture of poverty' impacting significant number of residents in the Falls

'Culture of poverty' impacting significant number of residents in Niagara Falls

By Justin Sondel justin.sondel@niagara-gazette.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — In her role as director of the Heart, Love and Soul food pantry in Niagara Falls, Sister Beth Brosmer gets an up-close and personal look at residents who are living in poverty in the Cataract City on a daily basis.

When she read the findings of a new report on conditions affecting the city’s poor, Brosmer summed them up in one word: “Sobering.” 

”It’s worse than I’d ever want to believe it is,” said Brosmer, whose pantry and daily lunch program provides food and meals to hundreds of poor and working-poor residents in the city’s north end each week. 

While it’s not exactly a revelation that Niagara Falls has more than its fair share of people living in poverty, the report, created following an analysis of data under a partnership between the John R. Oishei Foundation and the University at Buffalo’s Regional Institute, sheds new light on the severity of the problem. 

A sampling of the “sobering” numbers compiled by researchers shows: 

• Roughly 22,425, or nearly one out of every two residents, are “doing poorly or struggling financially.” 

• About 10,900 Niagara Falls residents, or more than 20 percent, live on incomes below federal poverty levels, identified as $23,550 for a family of four.

• Another 11,525 city residents do not fall under the federal poverty threshold, but earn less than 200 percent of that line, putting those people in a position described in the report as “close” to poverty.

The Oishei Foundation released the Niagara Falls community report last month. It is part of a larger, multi-year effort being undertaken by the Mobile Safety-Net Team, a task force created to study issues related to poverty throughout the region. The team has analyzed 12 Western New York communities as part of the larger initiative. 

In developing the Falls report, team members met with area service providers, residents and city leaders to assess not only the numbers but the reasons behind high poverty rates in the Falls.

Mobile Safety-Net Team Supervisor Jeffrey Pirrone said it is hoped the project will help people living in poverty improve their chances of coming out from under their struggles. Organizers also hope the findings will highlight the dire need for change in communities like Niagara Falls where so many continue to be hard hit by high needs and limited opportunities. 

”This is not supposed to be a report just to sit on a shelf,” he said.

The report highlights many shortcomings people in and around Niagara Falls have been discussing for years, including what are described as “alarming indicators and trends.” Among them:

• “Poverty is growing, while Niagara Falls’ population is shrinking.” The city’s overall population has declined by 9 percent since 2000 while the number of city residents living in poverty has grown by 2 percent over the same time period. Niagara Falls has 11,270 fewer residents than it did in 1990, representing an 18 percent decline. Since 1970, the city’s population has declined by 35,000. 

• “Economic vulnerability is widespread.” In some tracts, such as downtown, Hyde Park and Highland Avenue, three quarters of residents are in poverty or at-risk. In these areas, which include U.S. Census tracts 202, 206, 209 and 213, at least two-thirds of individuals are “doing poorly with incomes under 200 percent of poverty.” Only six of the city’s 20 Census tracks are doing better than Niagara County as a whole, according to researchers. 

• “Teen pregnancy and fragile young families are concerns.” Teen pregnancy rates in Niagara Falls zip codes (14301, 14303 and 14305) are the highest across Niagara County, at 10 percent more. Zip code 14303 has the second highest rate across Western New York’s eight counties.

• “Safe and appropriate rental housing is lacking.” According to the report, 55 percent of rental units if the Falls are “substandard,” either costing more than 30 percent of income, lacking in complete plumbing or kitchen facilities and/or house more than one person per room. 

• “About 15 percent of Niagara Falls’ most vulnerable have urgent concerns for food.” The report defines parts of Niagara Falls as a “food desert,” areas where lower-income populations do not have access to groceries. 

• “Crime rates are alarming.” Researchers said over the course of a year, more than one out of every hundred persons will be the victim of a violent crime, either murder, rape, robbery or assault. 

The Mobile Safety-Net Team surveyed 359 residents as part of its community needs assessment. One out of two residents surveyed said they have encountered “difficulty” getting services. One in five named “income limits” as the most common barrier to their success. Others on the list included traveling difficulties, distance from job centers in Erie County, criminal records, lack of full-time job opportunities, low levels of educational attainment, difficulty in navigating the network of available human support services and lack of awareness about available programs in their community. 

Pirrone said conversations with Cataract City residents living at or near the poverty line often involved a common message: They feel “trapped” by their financial circumstances.

”In a lot of the communities where we work people talk about a lack of hope, and I think in Niagara Falls it was the most prevalent,” Pirrone said. “They don’t see a way up. They don’t see a way out.”

Sharon Ana Entress, a senior policy associate with UB’s Regional Institute, said one of the recommendations made in the study was to provide more access to case workers for people living in poverty.

”We found that it seems like folks in poverty that don’t have those social networks in, maybe, dealing with hopelessness and not seeing the options, they really need more hand holding in navigating the system in accessing resources and opportunities,” Entress said.

Back on Ontario Avenue, Brosmer said she hopes the report will motivate people in a position to create change to get together and work on the issue in a united front. While the statistics may be hard for some to swallow, Brosmer hopes the findings will draw more of the level of attention she believes is needed when it comes to dealing with the city’s poor.   

”It’s sad that it’s that way,” Brosmer said. “But it’s also good for people to see that.”

The full community report on the City of Niagara Falls as well as other community reports developed by the Mobile Safety-Net Team and the University at Buffalo’s Regional Institute can be found by visiting www.oishei.org/index.php/initiatives/msnt/msnt-community.

POVERTY IN NIAGARA This is the first in a periodic series focusing on issues related to poverty in the City of Niagara Falls. In the coming weeks, the Niagara Gazette will publish additional stories on the findings of the Community Report prepared by the John R. Oishei Foundation and the University at Buffalo's Regional Institute. • For a detailed map of the report's findings, visit our website, niagara-gazette.com

Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257