By Justin Sondel
— Service providers, academics and politicians gathered in Dunleavy Hall on Niagara University’s Lewiston campus to discuss an issue that affects many people in Niagara County: poverty.
The university’s Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M. Institute for Civic Engagement hosted more than 140 participants at the second annual poverty conference Friday where a wide range of topics – barriers to employment, public policy and strategies for bringing about change – were discussed by people who deal with society’s most vulnerable people on a daily basis.
Robert Gioia is the president of the John R. Oishei Foundation, the largest private philanthropic organization in Western New York. As keynote speaker for the event, Gioia described the many challenges that face our region’s poor, citing reports produced by the foundation on Niagara communities as part of their Mobile Safety-Net Team initiative, a multi-year regional effort to identify and offer solutions to issues of poverty.
Gioia said decades of decline have made for a difficult situation across the region.
“The poverty continues to be more concentrated in Niagara Falls, urban areas of Niagara County,” Gioia said. “Nearly one quarter of the population is living in poverty and even more alarming it is a serious problem for one in three children.”
However, there has been incremental progress in recent years, Gioia said.
“Complex problems, social problems such as this will not be changed overnight,” Gioia said. “What we do see, in terms of progress, are the gaps that are being addressed.”
A panel of state and local legislators that included State Senator George Maziarz, R-Newfane, Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, R-Clarence, Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-Lewiston, Niagara Falls City Council Chairman Charles Walker and Lockport Mayor Anne McCaffrey spoke during the day-long conference.
The lawmakers described the power they have in dealing with poverty in their districts and cities and identified what they saw as obstacles that need to be addressed before taking questions from the audience.
Maziarz said he views job training through the education system as one of the best ways to break the cycle of poverty that exists in his district.
“You do that through two steps,” Maziarz said. “The educational process, then having the opportunity available for the individual once they go through that educational process.”
Many companies and agencies, including the New York Power Authority, complain that they have trouble finding qualified job candidates for anything beyond entry level jobs, and so pull candidates from other parts of the region or country, he said.
“The New York Power Authority, they put out a request for a janitor or a security guard they get thousands of applications,” Maziarz said.
The authority gets little response when seeking skilled jobs that require a limited amount of training which, to Maziarz, means there needs to be more local training for those types of positions, he said.
“A hot stick lineman will make more than the governor of the state of New York,” Maziarz said, “And they can’t find one.”
Walker, who has served on the city council for 15 years, said that a countywide conversation on poverty is long overdue.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s taken us so long to begin to really sit down and have a serious conversation as to what are we going to do going forward,” Walker said. “What’s going to be the route that the City of Niagara Falls takes?”
Walker said city officials are sometimes too quick to cut when they should be investing in worthwhile projects.
“Sometimes the first thing we want to do is cut,” Walker said.
But investing in a small project can lead to big changes, Walker said.
“You can’t move a community forward without investment,” Walker said.
Dr. David Taylor, a Niagara University professor and director of the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M. Institute for Civic Engagement, said he thought the poverty summit brought many people dealing with similar issues together to share their experiences.
“Most of the people in the room are in the trenches,” Taylor said.
The hope is that attendees will take some of the ideas discussed at the summit and apply them in their efforts to better serve the poor, he added.
“Ultimately, it comes down to individual and organizational responsibility to take it upon themselves, the folks in this room, to take the information back and take even small steps,” Taylor said.
Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257