Poverty isn’t just someone else’s problem

Today is Blog Action Day, a day when bloggers band together to hit on one topic. This year: poverty.

I'm going to focus on poverty in the U.S., because, well, I can't begin to imagine what it looks like in other countries. Countries that might be considered "underdeveloped," "developing" or, God help them, "poor."

We don't eliminate poverty in the U.S. until these three things happen:

(1) People recognize the sources and cycles of poverty
(2) People who aren't suffering realize poverty is their problem, too
(3) The federal government grows a brain about realistic guidelines

Let's look at item #3 first.

Federal minimum wage is $6.55 an hour, and goes up to $7.25 an hour next July.

If you work 40 hours per week, 52.5 weeks per year, at minimum wage, right now you're pulling in $13,755 now, and you'll be pulling down $15,225 next year.

According to this year's poverty level guidelines (PDF), right now you'd be below the poverty line for a family of two; next year you'd be above that, but below the line for a family of three.

Let's assume that someone making minimum wage pays no taxes. None.

Let's take John McCain's word that $5,000 will cover your health insurance.

Let's say you pay $500 in rent.

Let's say you drive a used car that you're paying $150 a month for.

Let's say you fill your gas tank once a week for $25 per week, and you skimped on the auto insurance so you're paying $50 a month.

Let's figure your heat and stove are electric, so you're averaging about $50 in utility bills all year round.

Everybody get $15,300? Have you eaten yet? Put down a co-pay on a doctor's bill or a prescription? Bought any clothes?

OK, maybe the car is a luxury, so let's knock of the $3,000 in car-related expenses.

But let's add $40 a month in bus fare and $10 a week in cab fare, since you can't load all your groceries onto the bus.

OK, so now we're at $13,300 in expenses for one person – again, we haven't eaten yet, we haven't been to the doctor, and we're still naked (not to mention sleeping on the floor).

The federal government's poverty guidelines says one person needs to make $10,400 a year to live. We've just racked up nearly $3,000 more than that, and we haven't even done some basics.

And if you're a single parent raising a kid? Forget about it.

Yes, there are social programs available, but they're getting cut left and right, and things are going to continue that way.

Minimum wage jobs tend not to have paid sick days, personal days or vacation. So, people working them are putting excess stress on their immune systems and are encouraged not to have any sort of family life. And if you're not emotionally strong enough to handle that? Too bad.

So people working minimum wage jobs tend to have little job security, and they bounce from minimum wage job to minimum wage job.

They see others around them – friends, parents, neighbors – doing the same thing, and don't learn how to break out of that rhythm or cycle.

#2 is a big one, too. People who don't consider themselves victims of poverty, have to lose the "I'm doing OK, why can't they?" attitude.

Everything from accidents of birth to circumstance to bigotry helps to keep a cycle of poverty going, and if you can't see that, maybe you need to spend a week actually walking in someone else's shoes.

Walk 6 miles to work one day because you spent the $2 bus fair on a can of beans and a pound of rice so you could eat for three days. Heck, keep your other comforts and consume only a can of beans and a pound of rice for three days – drink only tap water, give up the morning coffee and forget happy hour.

Figure out how you'd live if had to choose between paying your electric bill and your doctor bill, and when you've made that choice understand that your resulting bad credit keeps you from getting a checking account, so you have to carry around whatever cash you earn. Do your best not to get robbed, when everyone else around you could really use a sandwich.

You might complain about your taxes taking away your ability to live comfortably, but without taxes, governments can't provide services. No services means more poverty, especially if we're not going to regulate the industries everyone needs – insurance, pharmaceutical, etc.

Poverty is everybody's problem – yours, mine, the CEO of your company's, and yes (as the general election approaches), government's as well.

Wise up.

CNY Speaks: Second forum

I wrote yesterday about the first CNY Speaks forum Thursday, and then I went off to the second incarnation Sunday afternoon.

I'm starting to see these forums as interesting, necessary evils.

Don't get me wrong – just like the first one, there were a lot of interesting people with tons of good ideas in the room, but the action plan on this is to have public forums with candidates for mayor, common council and county legislature in the spring, ahead of the 2009 local elections.

That feels like a long way off, and we need some change now.

Sunday's incarnation was smaller, with about 40 people in the crowd.

I sat at a table with a young artist and two retirees, one of whom is actively involved with (or leads, maybe?) the CNY Public Art Forum, which hopes to get a public art space open in downtown Syracuse.

As with Thursday, our two top issues were public perception of downtown and storefront development.

Moving the bus hub also came up, for the second time, as did cutting red tape for potential small business owners.

I still think I'm getting something out of going to these, even if, at least at my seat, we're talking about some of the same issues: it's different people, with different ideas and different desires.

Action items for me include writing letters to Centro, the development committee and the MOST to think about moving the bus hub up to the old trolley ramp behind the museum. I think the MOST will get on board because it gives them more visibility, and since it's already an existing structure, the city won't have to enforce its eminent domain taking of the Red Cross building.

Sean Kirst also showed up to this one; here is his take.

CNY Speaks

The local newspaper, The Post-Standard, several months ago appointed Greg Munno to the position of Civic Engagement editor.

His first task was to launch a blog called CNY Speaks.

His second task was to create a series of public forums to discover what people felt would help improve downtown.

The first of the three forums was Thursday evening. It drew about 90 people. The goal was to get them talking about the results of a survey (PDF) that outlined some of the issues people had with downtown.

We were distributed at registration into tables. I sat with two real estate agents, an employee at an architecture firm, owners of two downtown businesses, a reporter (there as a citizen), someone who has had trouble opening a downtown business, and a retiree who is an advocate for various causes.

Also in the crowd were other reporters-as-citizens, developers, at least one person from Adapt CNY, and a bunch of other people who had bright ideas about what we could do with downtown.

Not in the crowd: Mayor Matt Driscoll, any member of the Syracuse Common Council, or people with overarching negative ideas about downtown.

For me, while the large attendance was a big success, those absences were a big problem.

There's a second go at the forum today (Sunday) at 2 p.m., and a third Tuesday at 6 p.m. I'm going today, and if there's a significantly different crowd with different ideas today than there was Thursday, I'll also go Tuesday.

My concern, though, is that we're in danger of ending up with a lot of good ideas, a great series in the newspaper, and nothing in the way of implementation.

For me, what could vastly improve downtown is a change in public perception. Sure, there are vacant store fronts, and more businesses downtown would certainly bring people. So would affordable housing – I'm sorry, but $1,250-per-month lofts don't fly when you're trying to attract young professionals in a market where they're lucky to make $30,000 a year.

But let's face it. One of the things people are most concerned about is safety, because they read about a lot of crime. They don't read far enough into the story to understand that most of that crime happens when drunk people are wandering the streets between 1 and 4 a.m. I'm not exactly an imposing figure, and I walked from Armory Square to the Hotel Syracuse (10 blocks or so) with a laptop on my shoulder to get to the forum. I never questioned my safety.

Could downtown use more people? Absolutely. Can we do it without public officials and an action plan? Absolutely not.

Who will step up? They might have my vote in 2009 local races.

Tearing down Interstate 81

If you've managed to jump around blog-to-blog with me, you know that taking down the elevated portion of I-81 between I-690 and I-481 is one of big things.

People have to understand that the bridges either need expensive shoring up or expensive taking down, so it's not like it's a project that's coming out of nowhere.

The Onondaga Citizens League has started a blog (h/t to Greg Munno), and their first case study is I-81.

They start with some history, which is really instructive for me. I didn't grow up here, and at any rate, even if I did, I wouldn't remember the end of the Erie Canal and what that meant for the city.

There used to be rail service down Washington Street, and it was really difficult for people at street level – and not real safe, considering some of the cargo.

One solution was to consider elevated tracks. But people were adamantly against that. It would divide the city, they argued.

That's exactly why elevated tracks weren't built, and exactly what happened when the interstate was.

Huh.

If I had my way, frankly, we'd rip up Washington Street and Salina Street, not allow cars on them, and restore passenger rail service to the old Syracuse & Utica rails that are still buried throughout the city.

We'd continue to run the freight trains where they are now, but turn the north-south corridor and the east-west corridor through the city into mass transit and pedestrian ways. With two-to-four trains running per hour on each corridor (depending on the time of day), I bet ridership could be huge. A couple of elevated walkways would solve the crossing-the-street problem, and trains aren't really any louder than buses, trucks and other traffic.

The other piece to the puzzle is University Hill, which is entirely cut off from downtown, thanks to I-81 (and don't give me that "why don't people just walk under the highway?" crap; it's seriously unsafe). A study was finished last year assessing the needs of the university area, particularly as concerns bike and foot traffic (PDF).

Imagine if all the Syracuse University and SUNY ESF students were able to easily patronize business in other areas – and people in the rest of the city were easily able to patronize the Marshall Street businesses without fighting with university parking?

Wow.

There apparently is already a group dedicated to taking down freeways, and they outline challenges and successes.

If you want to get involved locally, watch the the SMTC's I-81 Web site for news, including some citizen forums.