Here in Niagara Falls, we're used to this or that elected official pontificating on what ails our city the most -- the lack of private developers to spend even more of their own money, the failure of historic preservation efforts here over the years, and the environmental challenges posed by the remains of the chemical and nuclear industries that thrived here decades ago are all frequently mentioned.
The solutions they offer -- a cooking school downtown, a new train station, building more parks and recreational facilities, spending more than $50 million on a new courthouse in a blighted North Main Street neighborhood -- might actually be beneficial if they are correct in their assessment of the city's plight.
But talk to those who actually deal with the problems -- officials from the Niagara Falls City School District or Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital, police officers who regularly patrol our streets, or social workers dealing with the unwed mothers, drug addicts and other unfortunates -- and you'll hear a different story.
They'll tell you that the biggest problem in this city is the crushing poverty under which many of our neighbors subsist, a poverty so pervasive that generations of the same families are tied to welfare, public housing, drugs, street crime and other social ills.
A recent study conducted by Niagara Falls Schools Superintendent Cynthia Bianco details in explicit terms the extent of the problem, using data compiled from the U.S. Census, health care providers and the Department of Labor.
It's not a pretty picture.
"Substantial disparities exist between whites and minorities in Niagara Falls in terms of income, age, marriage, housing tenure, educational attainment and family structure," she told the Niagara Falls Reporter. "Poverty is growing as the work force shrinks and highly paid manufacturing jobs are replaced by lower-level service industry employment."
According to the Bianco report, poverty -- particularly among the city's black population -- is responsible for a myriad of social ills. While blacks make up 20 percent of the city's population, they own only 10 percent of the city's owner-occupied houses. And while 58 percent of births among whites are to unwed mothers, they account for a staggering 89 percent of births to blacks.
Since 73 percent of all children growing up in poverty belong to single-parent households headed by a female, the extent of the problem becomes apparent.
"More than one in four people in Niagara Falls lives in poverty, while the county rate is less than half that," Bianco said. "And in the Falls, children make up almost one-third of the 10,000 residents living in poverty."
And poverty is not distributed equally. Among African Americans in the city, 42 percent live below the federal poverty line, including 36 percent of all children and 60 percent of all women. African Americans represent just 20 percent of the population but account for 40 percent of those living in poverty.
Mayor Paul Dyster has proposed an "Underground Railroad Interpretive Center" based on some concocted history designed to honor Harriet Tubman and other freedom-seeking former slaves from more than 150 years ago. Would that he would devote as much attention to the problems of the black community today.
Median family income -- among blacks and whites alike -- is another problem. While the average Niagara Falls household takes in $43,269 annually, that's 26 percent less than the $58,786 taken in by the average Niagara County household and an astonishing 36 percent less than the $67,229 median household income for New York state.
And while City Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti will introduce a resolution at Monday's council meeting chastising state Sen. George Maziarz for having the temerity to discuss the city's moribund housing market, the number of vacant structures in the city is a staggering 19 percent, double the rate for Niagara County or New York state as a whole.
The vacancy rate here is, of course, a direct result of more affluent residents -- or those with good job skills -- fleeing the city in droves over the past four years. Of the 10 percent population loss reported by the 2010 census, nearly 3 percent occurred under the watch of Mayor Paul Dyster between 2008 and 2010, even though he claims to have stopped the exodus.
What all this means to the school district is that, while overall enrollment has declined, the number of children with special needs has risen dramatically. A full 60 percent of students in the system qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and school officials are often called upon to provide winter coats, proper footwear and other items for the impoverished children.
Still, the school district has managed to avoid a property tax increase since 1994. How many of us could live on what we were making 17 years ago?
At Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, Dr. Daniel Burns, chief of obstetrics and gynecology, deals with many of the same problems.
"The socioeconomic status of this community is 95 percent of the problem," said Burns. "We've got generations of people in low socioeconomic backgrounds, and it's hard to escape."
According to Burns, Niagara Falls is No. 1 in premature births. We're No. 1 in low birth weight, No. 1 in drug abuse during pregnancy, No. 1 in mothers who smoke, No. 1 in African-American population as a percentage of all births, No. 1 in unmarried moms, No. 1 in moms without a high school diploma, and No. 1 in moms suffering from obesity.
"We've got to change the culture in this community," he said. "If you start off behind the eight ball, so to speak, and you're sickly, you're not eating properly, you're a sick baby and you become a sick adult."
Bianco would concur. It's pretty tough doing your homework when you don't have enough to eat, when there's gunfire outside your bedroom window late at night, or when your mother's boyfriend is dealing crack out in the living room.
Clearly, the problems associated with the grinding poverty many Niagara Falls residents endure daily will not be solved without an influx of new jobs. Dyster, who has not created a single permanent private sector job in the nearly four years since he took office, appears to be oblivious to that.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||April 19, 2011|