Concentrated Poverty in Erie
Fighting for change in our most vulnerable communities.
I. Bad Incentives
I live on the lower west side of Erie, and I like my neighborhood a lot.
I can walk my dogs to Gridley Park in the afternoon, and take a stroll to the Lavery Brewing Company in the evening. If I'm in the mood for an epic sunset, Bayview Park always delivers. If I need to head downtown, I can get there on foot.
I rent an apartment, but I can probably afford to buy one of the handsome, turn-of-the-century structures along Eighth, Ninth, or 10th Street. But when I scroll through the real estate listings on my iPad, investing in nearby property seems dangerous. Homes aren't appreciating in the lower west. Property taxes typically fall between three and four thousand dollars per year. And beside the little apple icon on my Trulia app – in red letters, no less – the schools are listed as "below standard."
If I head west, I could invest more confidently in the Frontier neighborhood, where home values have plateaued rather than declined, and where the schools "meet standards." Or I could travel further, into the sought-out suburbs of Fairview where the schools are "exemplary" and property values are likely to rise.
Don't get me wrong – the problem isn't that I wouldn't be happy in Frontier or Fairview. The problem is that I'm already happy where I am. But my local property options make little fiscal sense. And if I had children, I would be facing a genuinely moral dilemma rather than an annoying economic obstacle.
This is an article about the bad incentives we face in Erie, and the people working to overcome them. When the health of our schools relies on the value of our properties, we incentivize flight and punish those who stay put. When trust breaks down between our police and our most vulnerable neighborhoods, crime flourishes and abuses occur. When fear of that crime escalates, foot traffic disappears, businesses fail, and basic needs can't be met.
This is how concentrated poverty escalates.
According to data from Erie Refocused, our flawed-but-informative Comprehensive Plan, the city's poverty rate sits at 27 percent. That's 10 percent higher than the average for Erie County. And certain neighborhoods are struggling far more than others. In the East Bayfront, for example, it jumps to 46 percent.
My middle-class housing woes are the least of our problems.
II. Consolidating Resources Through Community Schools
Let's delve a bit deeper into those troubled schools I mentioned.
If you read the local news, you probably know that our public school system is in trouble. One person who has served as the voice of reason (and exasperation) is Erie schools Superintendent Jay Badams. His increasingly urgent call for greater state funding has attracted national news as we try to iron out solutions to a $4.3 million budget deficit and a deteriorating infrastructure. I spoke to him about these problems and how to address them.
According to Badams, "we're spending less than 89 percent of the districts in the commonwealth on our students. And arguably, our students are among the highest in need, based on statistics. We're in the top 3 percent for English language learners, and we're in the top 3 percent for students living in poverty."
Some small victories have kept our school system from complete collapse, such as the budget that finally passed in May after months of political bickering. Somewhat more encouraging is the state's recently-adopted Fair Funding Formula, which forces our legislators to consider factors like poverty rates and language needs when allotting money to a district. But at the end of the day, "we're looking at a five- to six-year fiscal projection that shows us with a negative fund balance of more than $50 million," explains Badams.
One encouraging development is the "community schools" program being piloted at four local elementary and middle schools (Edison, McKinley, Pfeiffer-Burleigh, and Wayne). Conceived in partnership with the United Way of Erie, the model transforms these institutions into neighborhood hubs where local charities, businesses, and citizens can come together to share their services.
Here's how it works: The school district appoints a "lead agency" at each location to bring together the different participating organizations and individuals. The agency then appoints a director to help alleviate some of the burdens placed on our overworked school principals. According to Badams, this person assigns two key staff members, "one for social work or mental health services, and another who is responsible for programming outside of the school day – after-school, weekend, and evening activities."
Accordingly, community schools can stay open longer to provide services that would otherwise necessitate bus rides or car trips, which struggling families often can't afford. Students in need of counseling can attend sessions on site after classes end. Food programs can be expanded throughout the day. Recent immigrants can drop by for language instruction. The elderly can even make use of the gym.
Perhaps best of all, community schools don't require much additional state funding. Instead, key local benefactors, ranging from big companies like General Electric (which will serve as a business partner at Edison) to grassroots organizations like LifeThruMusic, step in to assist the struggling district. For once, Badams is optimistic: "The cost of these services is now completely off of our books, and really not reliant on state funding. And that's vital when we have to count every penny and we're coming up short."
III. Food Insecurity
As the 2008 financial crisis fades into history, it's not uncommon to assume we're in a period of recovery. For some, that's true. But for the poorest among us, access to good food is only getting worse.
In a July article for The Atlantic, journalist Ned Resnikoff looks at USDA data and finds that "approximately 17.4 million homes across the U.S. [are] populated with more than 48 million hungry people." To put those numbers in perspective, household food insecurity was just under 10.9 percent in 2006, but had jumped to 14 percent by 2014.
This places an incredible burden on our charitable organizations. Accordingly, I spoke to the leader of one of ours: Sister Mary Miller, director of Emmaus Ministries. Emmaus Soup Kitchen typically serves over 250 people per month, and Emmaus Food Pantry feeds over 500 families per week. During the school week, they run a Kids Cafe which offers nourishing meals to young people. Their most recent project is Emmaus Grove, an urban garden consisting of over 70 raised beds full of fresh vegetables and produce.
I was surprised to learn that homeless people aren't usually their primary clientele. Miller estimates that approximately 10 percent of the people who frequent their soup kitchens live on the streets. "When you walk in, you'll see people with addictions, you'll see the elderly, you'll see people with mental health issues," she says. But on the Tuesday prior to our conversation, she also fed about 30 children.
When I ask her about the conditions that create food insecurity, she immediately mentions housing: "If you go to some of the homes where the poor are living and ask what their rent is, you would probably be astounded. People are paying $600 or $800 in rent for what I would call a dump."
Miller sees systemic problems like low-paying jobs, absentee landlords, and lack of access to a living wage as the main drivers of food insecurity. In an email after our conversation, she mentions growing fear at Emmaus about the pending 17 percent spike in costs from Penelec. When you force people to choose between food and electricity, a lot of people go hungry.
When asked about solutions, her response is multifaceted: "It has to be education, it has to be good-paying jobs, it has to be decent housing, it has to be safe neighborhoods."
IV. Neighborhood Safety
To address our need for safe neighborhoods, I reached out to City Councilwoman Sonya Arrington, who had just returned from an unusual journey on the Monday morning when we spoke.
"I took 15 kids from my program camping," she says. "I rented a cabin, and I spent from Friday to Sunday afternoon with these kids." The kids she refers to are the often-troubled youths in her L.E.A.D. (Leadership Empowerment Accountability Diversity) program at the Booker T. Washington Center at 17th and Holland streets. Arrington estimates that 80 percent of the young people are court-appointed – and none of them are seasoned campers.
I asked her to describe a typical day for one of the teens she mentors at the center. "When they first come in we feed them, we help them with their homework. Then I have a presenter come in and we talk about different issues like STDs, teen pregnancy, bullying – you name it, we go through it," she says. The facility also offers a computer lab, job training services, and a music program.
For Arrington, the program "is all about giving back. Because the majority of them have done something to require being in my program." Recent initiatives like a clean-up effort at the Holland Street playground help her students to take pride in their neighborhoods.
Arrington is fighting for institutional changes as well. She's a strong advocate for reforms to our police department, such as mandatory body cameras and an independent citizens' review board. "The people in the inner city feel like nobody is listening to them," explains Arrington. "These changes would signal that [our police] do care. And that would bring hope back to our community."
Gun violence is a top priority for the councilwoman, whose 19-year-old son was shot down outside of a convenience store on Buffalo Road in 2010. Knowing firsthand the psychological damage that gun violence can do, she has called for a Trauma Task Force to be set up in Erie.
"A lot of the things that are going on in our community occur because these young men are traumatized," Arrington contends. "They have lost siblings, cousins, and best friends to violence. And nobody is asking them if there is anything we can do to help, or if they need somebody to talk to." Her plan is to offer counseling and therapy services at our community centers, which are located in the neighborhoods that often need them the most.
As our conversation ends, Arrington notes that "we cannot let our fear keep us from living our lives from day to day." As I learn more about local efforts to achieve prosperity in Erie, I'm comforted by the number of ordinary people who have refused that very fear.
For example, Sister Mary Miller notes the "tremendous community response" to a serious fire in their soup kitchen last September, which proved essential to rebuilding efforts. Hundreds of people responded to the bad news about our schools with paintbrushes and washcloths at Wilson Middle School and Lincoln Elementary this July, resulting in large-scale, cost-free infrastructural improvements. And as "those volunteers are coming in and seeing the state of the schools and understanding the problems, they're becoming advocates," adds Daria Devlin, our public school district's coordinator of grants and community partnerships.
When our institutions fail, there's a growing number of energized citizens ready to pick up the slack. Let's hope that their inspiring work will pressure our political leadership to stop offering bad incentives – and to focus on issues like education, income inequality, food insecurity, and social justice, instead.
Dan Schank can be contacted at email@example.com.