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Study: More than half of city residents live in poverty

Earnings far above the federal poverty level still are not enough for many New York families to make ends meet, according to a new multi-agency study.

The report, “The Self-Sufficiency Standard for New York State 2010,” shows that one adult in Monroe County with one preschooler and one school-age child would need an annual income of $47,391 — 259 percent of the federal poverty level of $18,391 — to be self sufficient.

James H. Norman, president and CEO of Action for a Better Community, last week said the federal poverty level for a family of four is about $22,000, but the self-sufficiency standard for two adults and two children in Monroe County is $55,000 or more, depending on the children’s ages.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard for New York State charts the actual costs of living and working in the state. It measures how much income a family needs to pay for housing, food, childcare, healthcare, transportation and taxes — if no help is received from relatives, friends or the government — based on the ages, as well as number, of children in each household, and where the family lives.

Norman said the federal poverty level indicates that 55,000 people in the City of Rochester — 25 percent of the total population — live in poverty, while the standard suggests it is well more than 100,000, or more than half of city residents.

“If we look at public support, we find that a third of the people eligible for food stamps aren’t getting them,” he said. “Currently, only 75 percent of eligible workers are getting the earned-income tax credit.”

Norman, whose agency promotes self sufficiency, said the eligibility standard varies for a lot of programs that serve the poor and working poor, with many cut off at 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

“What jumped out at me is the big gap between what the eligibility standards are for many in-service programs, which have the federal poverty level as the basis, and what it really costs to meet basic necessities,” he said. “It also says that there are many more people who are poor who are working. We use the term ‘working poor’ and, if we apply the self-sufficiency standard and we say the inability to meet basic needs, then a lot more people are in that poverty category than we have thought before.”

Norman said the report, drawn up by a committee led by the Empire Justice Center and New York State Community Action Association, will be distributed to heads of human services agencies and local lawmakers at all levels of government as an educational and planning tool.

Norman said job growth projections for this area between 2006 and 2016 will be in occupations that pay between $20,000 and $25,000 a year. Jobs in the $80,000 range require education not generally found among working poor, he said, but the figures set a target for what needs to be done.

Norman said his agency will use the report, released June 30, as a way to more accurately measure whether ABC is meeting its own goals, and to influence its strategies and goals.

“We’ll be more clear about what we have to do to move people closer to the real self sufficiency and not use federal poverty levels as the only measure,” he said. “Right now, we would normally think if we get someone to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, we would think they’re self sufficient. Using a family of four, $44,000 sounds like self sufficient but, in our community, it’s over $50,000.”

Not only has the federal poverty level increased, so has the gap between it and what it actually takes for an individual or family to make ends meet.

The federal poverty level for a family of four in 2000, the last time the self-sufficiency standard for New York was measured, was $16,660, compared to a self-sufficiency standard of about $40,000. The gap then was about 240 percent.

“I think what is most important about the report is it provides accurate information about what it actually costs to live in basic dignity in our community,” said Bryan Hetherington, chief counsel at the Empire Justice Center in Rochester. “Along the way, it ends up exploding some of the myths.”

He said, for instance, that couples with children spend more than 50 percent of their earnings on housing and childcare — two things not universally subsidized. Food assistance traditionally has been the leading subsidy offered.

“Both housing and childcare subsidies are very hard to come by,” Hetherington said. “You have to be very lucky. There are a very limited number in the community. We’re going to have to do a much better job at housing policy and child care policy.”

He said that, among the other issues addressed, are education and training, as well as the need to think more clearly about educating people for career paths that lead to higher-paying jobs.

New York joins 36 states and the District of Columbia as part of a larger project organizing research and advocacy to design, implement and inform programs and policies that move low-income families toward economic stability.

“We can, and must, be innovative in our approach to defining and funding programs and policies that offer these families a real shot at financial stability,” said Denise Harlow, CEO of the New York State Community Action Association.

A copy of the report, prepared by Dr. Diana Pearce of the University of Washington, is available at www.nyscommunityaction.org. For more information e-mail Susan Antos at the Empire Justice Center, santos@empirejustice.org.