A report released today shows how important wages are in the effort to end poverty in Rochester.
“Wage Disparities in Monroe County by Race and Gender” was created in collaboration by the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative and the Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives.
“We hope (the report) can drive a new kind of conversation around anti-poverty and lead to community effort to impact wage disparities,” said Luticha Doucette, research analyst in the city of Rochester’s Office of Innovation. “We didn’t get here overnight, nor is one industry to blame, so it’ll take communitywide effort to bring about systemic change.”
With stagnant wages, those at or below the poverty line continue to struggle, said Leonard Brock, director of RMAPI. The goal is to help individuals have a full-time living wage to stabilize their lives.
“Insufficient wages are one of the most significant barriers preventing those in poverty from moving toward self-sufficiency and one of the most common root causes of poverty across our region,” he said. “Too many people in our community are working, often part-time but some full-time, but not earning sufficient wages to sustain themselves and their families. Hence, full-time living-wage employment is a primary aim for RMAPI moving forward.”
The purpose of the report is to help understand what earning disparities mean in Monroe County to help inform RMAPI’s strategy for the next few years. The timing could not be better, officials said.
“This report comes at a critical juncture when stakeholders across the community are working together to address poverty and poised to respond,” Brock said. “RMAPI’s collective impact effort involves government officials, service providers, nonprofit agencies and employers all at the same table working on common goals.”
- Many part-time and seasonal workers live in poverty or are not deemed self-sufficient;
- Minorities are over represented in several key service industries;
- The industries with over representation by minorities tend to be the lowest paying and largest sectors in the county;
- Minorities earn less than white counterparts in nearly every industry; and
- Regardless of educational attainment, the wage gap between whites and minorities continues to exist.
2015 data from the U.S. Census ranks Rochester as the fourth poorest city in the United States. Over 30,000 Rochester workers—and over 65,000 across Monroe County—are living at or below the poverty level, according to the report.
The report exposes the fact that are many things at play, said Kent Gardner, principal and chief economist for the Center for Governmental Research Inc.
“Income disparity by race, gender and education are deeply intertwined, as the report makes clear,” he said. “Poverty is both relative and absolute. Self-sufficiency addresses absolute poverty—do we have enough to ‘get by’? Housing subsidies, SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid are ways to help individuals and families with ‘basic needs.’ Meeting basic needs is a fundamental social responsibility.”
The gap between rich and poor has been steadily increasing, coupled with the low graduation rates of the Rochester City School District—46 percent as of 2015 compared with a 78 percent graduation rate for New York State—there are multiple issues to address, Gardner said.
“Relative poverty is just as serious—maybe more so as it includes both human need and a very real challenge to social stability,” he said. “The gap between economic winners and losers has been growing steadily in recent decades, as an example, the ever-growing earnings gap between people without a high school diploma and those with a college degree.
“This amplifies the earnings gap by race as long as educational outcomes differ by race, which they do in Monroe County,” he added.
Even in growing industries such as health care, with demand for positions such as registered nurses, childcare workers and home health aides, there are problems with low wages, Doucette said.
“The biggest takeaway is that wage disparities persist even in growing industries, and in-demand occupations,” she said. “We as a country believe that if there is high demand, higher wages should follow and this doesn’t happen in many of our region’s growing industries such as health care.”
Wages have prevented women, minorities and the disabled population from becoming self-sufficient in Rochester. In this context, self-sufficiency is defined as earning 200 percent or above of the federal poverty guideline.
The report offers clarity for RMAPI’s strategic vision, Brock said.
“Roughly 33,000 of the 110,000 individuals at or below the federal poverty line in Monroe County are either employed or seeking employment, and addressing wage disparities is a critical need for this population and for our entire community,” he said. “Moreover, there are a good number of persons with post-secondary credentials who have a difficult time finding full-time living-wage employment.”
Going forward, the report supports the need for employers and lawmakers to work to increase the wages of the affected demographics, with a goal of reducing poverty by 50 percent over the next 15 years in Rochester.
“The next steps are to partner with interested employers to further explore their data and practices,” Doucette said. “Not all businesses are the same so therefore the strategies will differ depending on whose data is being examined.
“We also need a paradigm shift in attitude that this is a solvable issue and that as a county we will only stop once parity is reached and even then we will dedicate ourselves to ensure that wage disparities are a thing of the past.”
The report serves as guideline to deepen discussions about long-standing issues, Brock said.
“As a community, we must use this report to spark discussion about where and why these wage disparities exist and what we can do collectively to address them,” he said. “RMAPI will be engaging with lawmakers and employers in industry sectors where women and minorities are underpaid and over-represented, and work toward solutions that increase wages.”
Rochester struggles with high unemployment for black or Hispanic populations. The city has the highest unemployment rates for minorities compared with regional, state and countrywide figures, the report states.
The report also found women experience more poverty than men, with often women caring for children single-handedly in low-income households.
“Though we in the community may have had some basic understanding that minorities and women suffered a wage gap, this report highlights the depth of these gaps and their persistence across all education levels, demonstrating that the problems run much deeper than any superficial factors and need a systemic response,” Brock said.
Monroe County has changed dramatically over the last decade. The state Department of Labor’s 2012-2022 long-term industry employment predictions point to a 2.9 percent decline in manufacturing in the Finger Lakes Region. Jobs are either offshored or will be replaced by automation, according to the report.
“The report points out that people of color are overrepresented in occupations where wages are stuck,” Gardner said. “Middle income job losses—which are due more to automation than anything else—will be a constant headwind as we tackle poverty.”
Even with higher levels of education, minorities still fall behind their white, nondisabled counterparts, the report states.
“The most surprising data was wage disparities when controlling for educational attainment,” Doucette said. “We often say that education is the key to higher earnings and here is stark data showing that even with a bachelor’s degree, minorities will earn less than their white nondisabled counterparts. The data shows that education is not the great equalizer that it could and should be.”
Education still is the best solution to helping people get to self-sufficiency, Gardner said. Poverty and education are intricately tied.
“There can be no higher priority than improving our public schools,” Gardner said. “Income disparities by education reinforce the fact that education is the best anti-poverty program.”
The report offers both new insights and new energy to a problem that has plagued Rochester for a long time. RMAPI continues to seek collaboration.
“Programs alone will not solve the problem of poverty in our region,” Brock said. “It is critical that we identify the factors in place that are causing and sustaining poverty, and address them head on. Working with partners across the community, we can create systemic change that eliminates these barriers, allows people to move into self-sufficiency and ultimately improves quality of life across our entire region.
“There is still much work to be done, but we are encouraged by the activity we have seen so far and the willingness of stakeholders across the community to address this critical issue,” he added.
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