A Plea for a New Anti-Poverty Conversation

(Because the Old One Never Worked)

From the July/August 2016 PNL #851

by Brian Escobar

For the last two years, dire statistics about Syracuse have poured in. First the Post Standard reported that we are the 9th most segregated city in the country. Then we learned that Syracuse has the highest proportion of blacks and hispanics living in extreme poverty neighborhoods, so-called concentrated poverty, of any city in the country and 5th highest for whites. Syracuse has more poverty than any other city in New York State. The census found that child poverty in Syracuse has reached 50%.


A brief history

Policy experts and social scientists agree that this state of affairs is the result of policies, rather than any unusual cultural deficiency or quirk of our people. The impoverishment of many in Syracuse is the legacy of slavery, segregation, redlining, the construction of I-81 through the 15th Ward (home to 80% of black residents at the time, a result of restrictions on where blacks could live), the subsidizing of white flight and suburban development, the offshoring of industry and attacks on unions, all the result of policies designed and implemented by white capitalists.


Why previous anti-poverty programs failed
In Salt City and Its Black Community: A Sociological Study of Syracuse, NY, S. David Stamps and Miriam Burney Stamps describe how the War on Poverty failed to reduce poverty in Syracuse because it was averse to conflict with business interests and did not pursue structural economic reforms.

While the more successful New Deal improved workers’ bargaining position relative to bosses’ by providing safety nets and reducing unemployment through massive jobs programs, the War on Poverty instead focused on providing services, education, and skill-building to individuals and families and on funding community organizing. Instead of assuming the economic structure needed to be fixed, the War on Poverty assumed the problem was with the people in poverty. And War on Poverty programs were controlled by local white professionals and handpicked blacks who wouldn’t rock the boat.


Big decisions on the horizon
At this moment decisions with long lasting consequences for Syracuse are being discussed and could be decided soon. The two remaining options for the future of I-81, a rerouted straightened viaduct or routing traffic through the city grid, could have drastically different impacts on the future of CNY. A decision could be made in 2017.

City-county consolidation of services and government would also have a huge impact that would be with us for a long time. A referendum is being discussed for election day this November. Consensus CNY, a commission of local figures created by the city, county, and nonprofits to study city-county consolidation, is developing a proposal, in principle based on the public comments they have received since they produced over 50 proposals of services and functions to consolidate a few months ago. Consolidating city and county government would mean a decrease in representation of city residents. As Republicans tend to control the county while Democrats completely control the city, it would likely strengthen Republican influence over Syracuse without a corresponding increase in city influence over the county. While blacks make up over 30% of Syracuse residents, they make up only 12% of county residents. Latinx residents face a similar loss of representation.


Present similarities
Anti-poverty efforts in Syracuse continue along the lines of the failed War on Poverty. They are controlled by professionals and directed at individuals and families, financed by a combination of subsidies, government loans, private foundations, and investors. Policies are still designed in cooperation with business. What is different is that the federal government is not funding resident community organizing, which often had an adversarial relationship with the Syracuse power structure. Now even seemingly grassroots efforts are beholden to the establishment.

Greater Syracuse HOPE, also called the Syracuse Anti-Poverty Task Force, was formed in 2015 in response to the dire statistics cited above. It is pursuing a small $500K grant set aside by the governor for upstate anti-poverty programs and competing with anti-poverty task forces from other cities for $20M grant pool set aside by the state to match foundation grants. HOPE’s committees are comprised of professionals in government and the non-profit service sector, as well as business interests like representatives of Pyramid Corporation, owner of Destiny USA, and a couple of members from the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS). Admittedly token efforts at soliciting community input have taken place. Despite claiming to include the public, HOPE meetings are held during the workday and are not publicized.

The current iteration of the city-county consolidation was itself a top-down initiative of Governor Cuomo, who gave CNY a $500M grant to Syracuse for pursuing consolidation and is offering $20M to the local government with his favorite consolidation plan. Its 19 commissioners include representatives from local government and business with a single labor leader but no members of bottom-up community organizations.

While efforts include a few participants who have their ear to the ground, almost every one is dependent on the existing government and business power structure for their job, the funding their organization receives, or both.


A plea
A mobilization of public will into an organized effort with bottom-up accountability and independence from the established power structure is necessary. Until now, the reaction to the disastrous situation of the city has been tepid. Meetings must be at times and places accessible to more of the public, unlike meetings between 9-to-5 on weekdays that only fit into professionals’ schedules. Leaders cannot be beholden to the power structure.

At the same time, we must break from the War on Poverty approach that has failed for decades. We cannot be averse to conflict with the Chamber of Commerce or its community front CenterStateCEO, or their political allies. The business community does not share the interests of the city’s poor regardless of protestations to the contrary.

When the Urban Jobs Task Force pushed for an ordinance requiring a paltry 20% of workers on city contracts worth $100,000 or more be city residents, even that request met opposition from the business community and their local and state government allies. Other modest demands were watered down or removed in negotiations. The idea that people in poverty are the problem only looks at one side of the coin. The other side is the people who have benefited from the equation, the Bob Congels who profit from the minimum wage workers at Destiny USA and still receive 30 years of tax breaks.

For those goals that cannot be achieved through city or county policy, we need to participate in state, national, and global coalitions for basic income, universal healthcare, a shorter work week, and other policies on the scale of the New Deal that increase the power of ordinary people by decreasing our desperation, the desperation that leaves us working more hours for less money and benefits with less time for civic engagement.

In 1965 two members of the Congress for Racial Equality chained themselves beneath a car blocking the entrance to Niagara Mohawk, to force CNY’s biggest employer to hire more blacks. Their campaign worked. Let’s recapture that spirit.

Brian is a Peace Council organizer and Sanders pledged delegate to the DNC this July.