Buffalo ranked as the nation’s second-poorest city when Byron Brown took office in 2006.
The following year, the mayor declared that his administration was working hard to “bring people into the mainstream of Buffalo’s economy” while “taking steps” to reverse the “alarming numbers.”
Fifteen years later, the numbers haven’t changed.
Buffalo’s poverty rate in 2006 was 29.9 percent.
In 2019, the last year for which figures are available, it stood at 28.8 percent.
Put another way: Buffalo is no longer the nation’s second poorest city. It’s now the third poorest.
Even more disconcerting: Buffalo’s childhood poverty rate stands at 43.4 percent, the second-highest rate in the nation. Three-quarters of students attending Buffalo public schools are eligible for free breakfast and lunch.
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Brown has suggested that 2020 Census figures showing growth in Buffalo’s population for the first time in decades is evidence that progress has been made under his administration. In neighborhoods where poverty has traditionally been high and where the pandemic has made life even harder for many people, there’s far less enthusiasm.
“The real Buffalo story is that a few have advanced and their lives have gotten better, but too many have been left behind,” said the Rev. George Nicholas of Lincoln Memorial Methodist Church on the city’s East Side.
Henry Taylor, the director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo, has been studying the city’s poverty problems for years. He’s not surprised by Buffalo’s high rankings. He said that’s what happens when a community like Buffalo keeps using the same approach, not just year after year but decade after decade.
“Whatever we’re doing to combat poverty clearly is not leading to any significant decreases in it,” Taylor said.
Impact on city residents
Buffalo’s poverty story isn’t just about numbers. There’s a human element, as well.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Nicholas said his church on Masten Avenue regularly provided food, clothing and other essentials to dozens of needy residents each week.
Today, Nicholas said it’s not uncommon for 100 or more people to visit the church’s food pantry and clothing closet on a weekly basis.
“It’s just more,” Nicholas said. “It’s just people — young, old, single, married, male, female. There’s no kind of profile. It’s just people in our communities who are struggling.”
At Gerard Place, a community center that has been helping needy residents in the Bailey-Delavan neighborhood for more than two decades, President and CEO David Zapfel said he has seen a similar increase in demand for services from people who have been struggling during the pandemic.
While he said his organization has been able to keep pace thanks to the generosity of the community, Zapfel said Buffalo has more work to do to address barriers to the advancement for the poor that existed long before anyone heard about COVID-19. Those areas include living wage jobs, access to healthy food options, affordable transportation and expanded day-care services.
“There’s wonderful people who are struggling to survive and will work to feed their families,” he said.
Buffalo has been dealing with high levels of poverty for decades.
Taylor, the UB professor, said Buffalo’s persistently high poverty rates stem from “serious structural issues” and a lack of “realistic strategies” for addressing them.
The numbers show a disparity in educational attainment by race. For example, Taylor’s research shows Black students are more likely to have not graduated from high school than white students (17.6 percent vs. 9.3 percent).
Likewise, a smaller share of Blacks have earned a four-year college degree than whites (15.7 percent vs. 38.1 percent).
The result: people with less education often work part-time, or seasonal jobs. In turn, they often pay a disproportionate amount of their income on rent.
Under Brown’s watch, Taylor said, the city has largely ignored the realities of the poor. The Brown administration has attempted to deal with the problem by spending more on police and social services, he said.
Neither have proven effective, according to Taylor.
“That’s the model that we use in Buffalo and it’s a failed model and it will continue to fail,” Taylor said. “We have to do something different.”
Nicholas, chairman of the African American Health Equity Task Force, believes the city’s poverty problem persists because of a lack of leadership and accountability.
Nicholas points to ongoing negotiations over plans to build a new $1.4 billion stadium for the Buffalo Bills as a glaring example of the community’s priorities being out of whack. With the stadium expected to cost taxpayers perhaps as much as $1 billion or more, he said it would be “laughable,” if it wasn’t so “painful” to consider what that kind of money could do to help address poverty locally.
“At the end of the day, people at the neighborhood level are still suffering mightily and there isn’t that kind of focus work to try to change that,” Nicholas said.
While there are programs to help the poor, Nicholas said there has been little emphasis on assessing their effectiveness.
“The answer isn’t just to keep feeding these systems that are going to feed people who are hungry,” he said. “It’s going down the line and finding out why they’re hungry and then addressing those issues so they don’t have to be in that position for a long period of time.”
Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, the executive director of the Partnership for Public Good, said Buffalo has for many years suffered from “concentrated, racialized urban poverty,” which has been perpetuated by policies that “essentially punish people for being poor.”
She cited traffic tickets and late fees for overdue water bills as examples of city policies that have driven up costs for residents who can least afford it.
Two other important issues — wages and expenses — have not received enough attention over the years, according to Súilleabháin.
Research done by PPG shows one-third of jobs in the Buffalo region pay less than $26,000 per year, and more than half of Buffalo residents struggle to pay the rent. Add in child care and transportation costs and Súilleabháin said it’s hard for the typical low-income family in Buffalo to keep pace.
“We haven’t made the policy choices that will do two simple things,” she said. “One is to increase incomes and the other is to reduce people’s expenses.”
Brown’s tepid approach
Throughout his tenure as mayor, Brown — who refused requests for an interview from Investigative Post for this story — has vowed to take steps to address poverty.
In 2008, he announced the appointment of Donna Brown (no relation) as deputy mayor and said she would help lead his administration’s anti-poverty efforts by focusing on creating jobs, redeveloping the city and improving Buffalo public schools.
A year later, Brown’s administration released its Buffalo Poverty Reduction Blueprint, a 77-page document that was supposed to serve as a roadmap for his administration’s efforts.
Instead, the report was criticized for amounting to a regurgitation of existing anti-poverty programs.
Brown has continued to defend his administration’s approach to poverty, suggesting it has invested significant dollars in employment programs, housing and other initiatives designed to help the poor.
In July, Brown unveiled a new plan for tackling poverty: A “guaranteed income” program that would use federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to provide $500 monthly checks to low-income households selected by lottery.
In late August, the mayor changed course, saying the city would instead direct the money to support “wraparound services,” including job training.
“Instead of the universal basic income, we shifted that to a commitment to training programs that could help people, that could provide training for people to go from training to well-paying jobs fairly quickly,” Brown told The Buffalo News.
Taylor, the UB professor, said there’s no evidence that the city’s efforts to this point have been effective. While the city does have educational and training programs, he questions how effective they are in their core mission: making sure people who need jobs get them.
“You have all kinds of programs, all kinds of money being spent, but they are being spent in ways that represent a mismatch between the problem that you face and the way you are spending and allocating dollars,” he said.
Walton, the Democratic primary winner, considers poverty the “root cause” of many of Buffalo’s biggest problems, including crime and lack of educational attainment and employment among young people.
If elected, Walton said she plans to cut bureaucratic fat out of existing anti-poverty programs to direct more resources to people in need. While she did not rule out the possibility of raising property taxes to help cover costs for her administration’s initiatives, she said significant resources could be drawn from a source Brown’s administration has failed to fully explore: state and federal grants.
“If we can find money to build amphitheaters and buildings that no one lives in and amenities and recreation, surely we can find money to fund basic services to make sure our most vulnerable are taken care of,” Walton said.
Walton’s campaign spokesperson Jesse Myerson said she would also support a shift in funding away from “surveillance and punishment” to “community based resources and public services.” Citing an analysis performed by the Partnership for the Public Good, Myerson said $16 million can be reallocated from the city’s police department to create public service jobs “without laying off a single sworn officer.”
Under her administration, Walton said she would focus on the creation of more land trusts, which are citizen-run nonprofits that acquire property to advance neighborhood-based redevelopment. Walton said she wants to support the growth of more worker-owned cooperatives, arguing that the business model provides residents with labor protections, greater job stability and living wages.
Walton also intends to sign on for Mayors for Guaranteed Income, a group of U.S. mayors that supports providing all residents with recurring cash payments.
What are her expectations for lowering poverty if elected?
“Realistically, I’m thinking that we can at least see a 5 percent reduction over the course of our first term.”