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Tabitha Brewster saw something strange happening in the last few years.
As the agency administrator at Catholic Charities of Livingston County, Brewster was used to working with families at or below the poverty line to provide emergency services such as food and shelter.
But the past several months the number of people coming into the Mount Morris office has increased dramatically, and the demographics have changed drastically as well.
“The number of people we’ve served has been incredible, and increased about 25 percent or more in the last year and a half,” Brewster said. “The biggest increase has been from families that had jobs or maintained jobs consistently and lost jobs, and now are trying to find ways to make ends meet.”
The trend is much the same in Greater Rochester’s other outlying counties, as well as rural areas within Monroe County. A report issued late last year by the Rochester Area Community Foundation and ACT Rochester showed poverty is prevalent throughout the region and often increasing in communities more distant from Monroe County.
Poverty outside Monroe County ranges from 9.7 percent in Ontario County to 15.4 percent in Yates County. Genesee County has a poverty rate of 12.5 percent, followed by Orleans County at 12.1 percent, Seneca and Livingston counties at 11.7 percent, and Wayne County at 11.1 percent. Wyoming County has a poverty rate of 10.1 percent.
This prevalent poverty has put a strain on the non-profit organizations and human service groups working with the poor, creating challenges as they work with new populations and greater numbers.
When the report on poverty in the nine-county area was released in late 2013, much of the focus was on the unusual concentration of poverty in the city of Rochester. The city was the fifth-poorest in the nation among the top 75 metropolitan areas and second-poorest among comparably sized cities.
But Edward Doherty, vice president for community programs at the Community Foundation and the report’s author and researcher, said the scope of poverty went far beyond the city’s borders.
“Poverty is everywhere,” he said. “There is not a single county that doesn’t have poverty.”
For example, while the city of Rochester had a poverty rate of 31.1 percent, the county with the highest rate was Yates, southeast of Rochester, with 15.4 percent of residents below the poverty level.
In total, all surrounding counties had a poverty rate of 11.4 percent, with one-third of all the region’s poor coming from these areas. Monroe County has a poverty rate of 14.4 percent.
Doherty noted the true number of people in need in these areas could be higher still. The report measured communities using the federal poverty guidelines, which even the researchers note is an incomplete picture of the true level of poverty. Many health and human service programs use incomes higher than the federal poverty level—which this year is income of $23,850 for a family of four—to define eligibility.
Cities and villages
While poverty has spread through every town in the outlying areas, Doherty said it often is concentrated in smaller villages the same way it is in the region’s four cities: Rochester, Batavia, Geneva and, to a lesser extent, Canandaigua.
While Rochester has the highest poverty rate at 31.1 percent, both Batavia and Geneva are at 23 percent. Canandaigua’s poverty rate is 13.3 percent.
Many villages have rates rivaling the large cities.
In Livingston County alone, Mount Morris has a 24.3 percent poverty rate, and Nunda’s poverty rate is 24.1 percent. Geneseo has a poverty rate of 41.3 percent, though Doherty said this may be influenced by the population at SUNY College at Geneseo.
Rates are high in other villages. In Monroe County, Brockport has a 25 percent poverty rate, and in Wayne County the villages of Wolcott and Sodus have rates of 30.2 percent and 25.9 percent, respectively.
“The poverty rate in all villages is nearly 16 percent, while in the towns outside those villages it is close to 6 percent,” Doherty said. “It suggests that villages operate as mini-cities, where they are more densely populated areas with a wider variety of housing options that tend to have higher poverty rates.”
The report also found poverty can increase the farther away communities are from urban centers. Doherty said a good example was in Wayne County, where the towns are arranged in tiers stacked on top of the other.
The three towns adjacent to Monroe County had poverty rates in the single digits, Doherty said. The next three moving eastward away from Monroe County had rates of 10 to 12.5 percent, while those farthest from Monroe County had poverty rates of 13 to 19 percent. The one exception was the town of Rose, which had a poverty rate of 5.2 percent.
The level of poverty in outlying areas certainly has been noticed by Foodlink Inc.
Within the last three years the region’s food bank started a mobile pantry that brought food to rural and underserved areas, helping regional partners meet the growing level of need.
“We started this three years ago to complement emergency food service providers who couldn’t meet the need on their own,” said Jeanette Batiste, Foodlink’s chief operating officer. “It’s grown greatly since then, with a 66 percent increase in distribution since our first year. In some counties there has been an increase of more than 200 percent in need.”
Batiste said she is familiar with the poverty report, noting that Foodlink also tracks poverty trends throughout the region to meet needs.
“One of the things we look at is the number of schoolchildren who receive free and reduced lunches,” she said. “There has been a big increase in that in Wayne County.”
In Livingston County, Catholic Charities has been challenged not just by the sheer number of people seeking emergency services help but by the new faces walking through the door.
“I’ve worked at Catholic Charities (of) Livingston County for about seven years, and when I was doing direct case work, I never came across someone with a master’s degree,” Brewster said. “But just in the last year and a half I’ve seen people with bachelor’s degrees and higher, and they’re just not sure what to do.
“They’ve worked their whole lives and maintained employment, but suddenly when they lose their jobs they don’t know if they should go back to school or focus on career skills, or even know how to apply for services.”
The non-profit organization works with this population, offering help finding employment while also meeting basic needs.
The overall increase in people seeking services has been dramatic, Brewster noted.
“Before 2008 we were serving about 3,000 people a year in direct services, and now in 2013 our numbers show that between direct services and people coming in off the street looking for general help, (it) was well over 8,000,” she said.
The encroachment of poverty has been felt in outlying areas of Monroe County as well. The town of Sweden has a poverty rate of 17.6 percent, while the town of East Rochester has a 14.3 percent poverty rate.
Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research for Catholic Family Center, said an increasing amount of the organization’s resources are being directed beyond the city.
He noted that Catholic Family Center gives grants to food cupboards, and of the 19 grants given out, seven went to suburban and rural areas in Monroe County.
Even as more resources go to these locations, Mich said it is difficult to get a full picture of poverty there.
“In places like Webster’s Hope Ministries, which has been in place for 10 or 12 years, they’re getting swamped,” he said. “We also hear of people going from the suburbs and beyond and coming into the city for food coverage because they’re embarrassed and uncomfortable to go in their own communities.”
One of the biggest challenges is that poverty is not an acute problem, Batiste said. There are not just pockets of poor around areas of stagnant job growth or layoffs, but instead a sustained level of poverty that stretches organizations such as Foodlink.
“This is happening everywhere,” she said. “All of our providers are bursting at the seams, trying to meet the need.”
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