Standing Up for Erie's Youth
Our youth are screaming out — are you listening?
The City of Erie has one of the poorest zip codes and one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation. Forty-four percent of youth under 18 grow up in poverty, with rates higher for Black and Hispanic youth. A crisis like this does not simply evolve overnight — it is built on decades of bad policymaking that leaves too many behind. Blaming those impacted is shameful; holding those accountable for these decisions is essential. It is time for our community to collectively work together to address this crisis. Our kids are our future.
All parties agree that the pandemic has made a huge impact on our youth from the lack of mental health services to disruptions in school and enrichment programs. Financial stress in the home creates ripple effects of trauma in young people's lives. The median wage in our city is currently around $11/hour, landing 46 percent of our workers below the poverty line.
How can our kids succeed when their parents are working multiple jobs, can't afford childcare, don't have transportation, and need to leave the kids home alone? What choices are we giving families?
Lack of intentional decisions to reduce child poverty, such as investing in affordable housing, food access, childcare vouchers, public transportation, and social services, have slipped Erie into a new territory of youth violence. In my less than three months as Erie City Council's Public Safety Committee Chair, it has been gut-wrenching to review the weekly crime data from the Erie Police Department. Our youth need a village to keep them safe. Instead, we live in a reality of teenagers shooting one another out of desperation.
Erie isn't alone in this struggle. Gun deaths among U.S. children and teens rose 50 percent between 2019 and 2021.
These issues are interconnected at the core. A 2021 study from JAMA Pediatrics found that gun-related deaths were over four times higher among young people living in counties with the highest concentrated poverty than with youth living in counties with the lowest concentration of poverty. The City of Erie holds the highest concentration of poverty in the region.
We cannot wait.
Every week when I walk into the studio at Erie Dance Theater to teach ballet classes, I am energized by our city's youth. They are witty, clever, caring, and confident. They are eager to learn, grow, and express themselves. Ninety percent of the youth I teach are growing up in low-income families. Teaching class last year, hours after the shooting at Erie High School was my wake up call. Children can't learn when they are scared. And they can't dance when they have lost hope.
It is imperative that we invest in a public health approach that not only prevents violence before it happens, but also addresses underlying causes. Poverty is a root cause of violence as well as a traumatic experience for our youth. Volumes of research demonstrate the negative impacts of poverty on childhood development. Poverty destroys opportunity: only 62 percent of children who spent at least half their childhoods in poverty go on to graduate high school compared to 90 percent for those who never experienced poverty (Urban Institute, 2017). The experience affects health with one out of every five kids in our community growing up hungry (Feeding America, 2022).
While we need this approach locally, we aren't seeing it in action. Current policy efforts to address this spike in youth violence from our city government include a $4 million investment to reinstate a Juvenile Crime Unit in the Erie Police Department. Supported by the mayor's administration, this unit is funded by American Rescue Plan dollars aimed to offset the impacts of the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn.
We can't police poverty; we can only incarcerate kids trapped in poverty by no fault of their own. Our extreme and unprecedented child poverty rate alone has increased since the last time the city had a Juvenile Crime Unit in 2005. If we want to curb violence, we must address poverty first.
Susannah Faulkner spoke at the event Erie Celebrates Black Resistance: Yesterday and Today event at ECAT in February 2023, reading an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.'s book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
Investing in evidence-based poverty reduction policies and programs is our best shot at reducing crime and creating a future for our youth to thrive in Erie. A universal basic income pilot addresses exactly that by providing direct cash assistance to families in need.
The concept of universal basic income (UBI) is not new or radical. Cash transfers work — pandemic stimulus checks, increased unemployment benefits, and the child tax credit temporarily reduced child poverty nationally by almost 50 percent in 2021 (Census Bureau, 2022). UBI nearly became a national policy in the late 1960s with strong support from both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then President Richard Nixon.
Evidence shows that such a UBI program can decrease homicide, property crime, overdose deaths, and domestic violence in a community. Over 100 cities across the country have launched pilots for families in poverty including fellow recovering cities like Rochester, Detroit, Harrisburg, and Gary, Indiana to receive monthly cash stipends for a limited time. Cities partner with local universities and researchers to better understand the impact of the assistance and where greater local investments must be made to create systemic change.
Imagine if, throughout our city, families struggling to make ends meet received $400 a month for a year to uplift themselves out of chronic poverty. Initial findings out of various UBI pilots have found positive impacts. One-third of recipients secured permanent housing, showed decreases in anxiety and depression rates, and improvements moving from part to full time employment.
The good news is that we in Erie have the money to support a pilot program from a $2.1 million Youth Investment Fund that is just sitting there, while our youth cry for help. A standard UBI pilot for 300 families for one year costs just shy of $2 million. Additional grant funds can be accessed by the city to continue these efforts at no cost to taxpayers.
UBI is a preventative public safety policy which will improve mental health, reduce crime, and increase housing stability for our neighbors in need.
Our youth deserve to dream, and it is our responsibility as adults to create that future for them. Will you stand up for them with me?
Susannah Faulkner is an Erie City Council Member, Development Director at Sisters of St Joseph Neighborhood Network, and a Raimy Fellow at the Jefferson Educational Society. She can be reached at email@example.com