Concerns over a dwindling middle class were on the minds of many people during a recent public forum on the current status of poverty in Chautauqua County.
County Executive Greg Edwards, New York State Assemblyman Andy Goodell and State Senator Cathy Young served as panelists for the discussion, which was held by Chautauqua Opportunities, Inc. at the Clarion Hotel in Dunkirk before a packed audience. The panelists were asked three questions by COI Executive Director Roberta Keller, including their positions on how to address poverty, invest in the area’s youth and focus on climbing out of poverty.
Young stressed the need to bring better Internet access to rural areas so the area can keep up with the rest of the world, as well as the need to relieve some of the huge tax burden on residents and businesses of the county.
“Even though at the state level we invest so much money in our schools, more per student than wealthier areas of the state, but because our communities don’t have wealthy tax bases, we’re kind of behind the eight ball,” she said. “We are losing our young people because they don’t think they can be successful here. They think in order to have career opportunities, they have to go somewhere else. We need to work together, as a community, to change that perception. That’s the only way we can turn things around. There are a lot of jobs in the area that aren’t necessarily being filled … (as a result of) this mass exodus of our young people.”
In regard to the climbing out of poverty question, Young said the programs currently in place may be too narrow. She also said the key to getting out of poverty has to do with cultivating a good-paying job, citing the county’s welfare-to-work program, where welfare recipients learn job skills by participating in community service activities.
Goodell said the county is significantly stronger than other areas when it comes to the manufacturing industry, which has been hard-hit in the area.
“We need to be sensitive to the fact that our manufacturing is in competition with the rest of the nation,” he said. “That means our tax structure, our employment structure, our regulatory structure must be competitive with Pennsylvania and Ohio. If it isn’t, you’ll see our manufacturers move.”
In regard to the young people question, Goodell pointed out Jamestown Community College was recently ranked number one in the state in terms of the best community colleges and SUNY Fredonia consistently ranks nationally. He also said He also said the graduation rates in the county’s school districts are fairly high compared with other areas of the state.
“How many of you have said to your kids, ‘Forget about being a doctor, lawyer, accountant, have you considered working in a factory every day?'” he said. “Did you know a starting wage for a welder is around $60,000 a year in this county? I can tell you a starting wage for a new attorney is less than that. We need a perception change.”
Goodell also said the system puts a handicap on those attempting to climb out of poverty for the sake of giving tax breaks to those who do not need it.
“There is no flexibility in the asset protections for a person to make it out of poverty,” he said. “We structure a program that punishes people for success. We need to be focusing on independence, not dependency. Going up ladders involves work and energy. Let’s make it easier for them then. The highest income tax rate is on those who are working to get out of poverty … because we allow them to keep the first $90 they make, then we reduce their welfare benefit by 50 percent. Are you serious?
Edwards said residents in the county are collectively paying $3.5 million less in county taxes than they did in 2006 despite the recession, which has helped stimulate investment. He also said there is no reason people should have to suffer from lack of food, medicine or shelter because there are resources, like COI, out there for them.
“We just need a recognition of two core values: personal initiative and personal responsibility,” Edwards said in regards to the youth question. “We don’t need more money to do that or a complete redesign of our government structure. Opportunities still remain in our area to provide quality and effective educational opportunities for our kids in a safe environment after school despite the fact that round 6 of the 21st Century money was virtually eliminated from Chautauqua County.”
According to COI’s 2013 annual report, nearly 19 percent of the county’s population lives below the poverty line. Children under the age of 18 made up one of the most shocking figures of the report, as around one in four live in poverty. Keller was quick to point out that those figures do not include people considered in a borderline-poverty category.
“When looking at these statistics, we need to focus more on the median income … to really get an economic picture of the purchasing power in our county and the impact of that earning capacity within our county, both economically and socially,” Keller said.
The median income for the county is $40,711, according to the report.
After the three panelists presented their responses to COI’s core questions, the forum was opened up for the public to ask their own specific questions.
Keller hoped that afterward, the conversation would not cease due to the event ending, but would in fact continue with more discussion on how to address poverty.
“This should be a beginning and not an end,” she said.
COI is a not-for-profit community action agency that designs and implements programs that address local needs and conditions, including housing, health, family and child care services. For the past several years, it has been developing services geared toward self-sufficiency and economic security. The group has been in operation since 1965.
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