In the words of Governor Andrew Cuomo, “Every New Yorker deserves a shot at the American Dream.” And he’s hoping his Empire Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI) will do just that.
The $25 million plan aims to boost economic sources and opportunities for everyone living in New York, especially in communities where poverty levels are high — like in the South Bronx.
“I think we see poverty manifest itself in many different ways in terms of health outcomes adults and young people have,” says Abe Fernandez, Director of Collective Impact at The Children’s Aid Society. “We see it in terms of education and in terms of employment.”
The Children’s Aid Society is a local organization working to coordinate ESPRI in the Bronx. Over the last several months, the organization has been conducting a series of sessions with residents — asking them about their struggles and what needs to be done to overcome it.
“The idea is to engage the community in a fairly brief but really intensive process of planning and understanding what does the data say around poverty and looking at different lenses at what poverty looks like in the Bronx,” says Fernandez. “And having the community really drive the decision about what we do about that.”
Data shows the poverty rate in the borough is at 30 percent. That’s 10 points more than the citywide rate and in some communities, that number is doubled. The average household income for families with children is about $25,000, less than half of citywide figures.
Some Bronxites, like Dana Elden, believe there are simply not enough valuable resources available to the community. She says often times when developers say they are bringing, “affordable housing” in the area, most residents living there still can’t afford it.
“At the end of the day you’re just pooling in a lot of poor people with no resources no opportunities,” says Elden. “And then you expect for them to grow and to nurture in your community where you build these buildings and complexes. It’s not going to happen.”
Other residents, like Beverly Emers, feel having services that encourage parents to be more involved with their children could have a positive affect on education.
“Parent engagement is what liberated me and changed my mindset,” says Emers.
A mother to a teenage son, the 47-year-old struggled with drugs and was incarcerated on and off for several years. But Emers says seeing her son having issues in school really made her want to change and actively get involved with his learning.
“If the parent is helping the kid they do better in school,” says Emers. “It also empowers the parent. I just feel like that could break a lot of the cycle.”
Introduced in 2016, ESPRI is modeled after another previous initiative, the Rochester Anti-Poverty Task Force. The program, implemented the year before, also gathers information directly from residents to determine the best solutions.
“This input has allowed us to focus our efforts on the priorities of local people most affected by poverty with adult mentoring and navigating top priority that emerged from our work,” says Leonard Brock, Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative Director. “Helping families attain and retain livable wage employment is certainly one of the steps on the stairway out of poverty.”
The governor’s anti-poverty initiative has expanded to 16 communities across the state. Right now, the Bronx is the only community in New York City that’s included. Fernandez says they can learn a lot from what Rochester has done.
“Rochester took, I think, a short-term and a long-term approach to addressing poverty,” he says. “The really important thing is to best to determine how to do both things. A short-term win, what’s that core work we know is going to take many, many years far beyond this project right now.”
Fernandez says there have been other opportunities that have come to the Bronx to try and fix poverty in the past, but they were for a limited time, not addressing the issues on a long-term basis.
“How do we not just continue to fund programs, but to have the community and lots of different members of the Bronx, leadership, folks who work here, folks who live here, begin to think about if we can do something that’s never been done before,” he says. “We think that would make a difference.”
“The greatest feast has the most guests at the table,” says Cuomo. “Let us commit ourselves to the principle that in our great state no child should have to worry about where his or her next meal is coming from. No child should live in poverty.”
The Children’s Aid Society is continuing to meet with people in the community. The group hopes to have a plan of how to tackle the issues by this summer.
“This is a long-term effort. We don’t think we are going to eradicate poverty by May of next year,” says Fernandez. “But we do think that we are going to learn a lot and I think we’ll also be able to get some quick wins that will teach us a little about how we can work together as a community.”
Poverty experts are taking a wait and see approach. After all, diagnosing the causes of poverty is easier and cheaper than actually rallying public will and resources to address it.
Lazar Treschan, director of youth policy at the Community Service Society of New York, credits the Bronx effort with a serious approach, a solid commitment to sound data analysis and real efforts to engage residents. “But as always, the question will be about how many resources get devoted to the implementation of solutions to the problem areas that are identified as priorities by this work,” Treschan adds.