Pre-K teacher Sue Rogacki offers a human touch to an upset child at Our Lady of Hope School at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy on Walden Avenue in Buffalo on Wednesday.

For the first time in at least a decade, the majority of Buffalo children live in poverty.

The poverty rate for the city’s children under 18 increased from 45 percent in 2012 to 50.6 percent in 2013, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates to be publicly released today.

Some 29,726 of the city’s 58,722 children under 18 live in poverty, according to the Census estimate.

That’s the third highest poverty rate for children among the nation’s 75 biggest cities, according to a Buffalo News analysis of the data. Buffalo’s child poverty rate was 37.5 percent in 2005.

The city’s overall poverty rate nudged upward as well, even as the nation’s poverty rate declined for the first time since 2006. Buffalo’s overall poverty rate increased from 30.9 percent in 2012 to 31.4 percent in 2013. In 2005, the poverty rate was 26.9 percent.

The $17,000 that Irene Oquendo earned in 2013 put her well below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four. Her three sons – ages 15, 9 and 5 – “eat for 20,” she said.

“I’ve got a big boy,” said Oquendo, 31. “One pair of pants is, what, $30? So it’s hard. It’s difficult. But I’m making it.”

The reality facing parents like Oquendo touches many parts of the community, from health and welfare programs to the Buffalo Public Schools, where the vast majority of students meet the school system’s definition of impoverished.

Among other findings in the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey:

• Buffalo’s poverty rate is more than twice the national rate of 14.5 percent.

• For Hispanics in Buffalo, the poverty rate fell from 50.3 percent in 2012 to 46.1 percent in 2013, but the city had the second-highest poverty rate for Hispanics among the nation’s largest 75 cities. Only Memphis had a higher rate. For Hispanics across the nation, the poverty rate fell from 25.6 percent in 2012 to 23.5 percent in 2013.

• The 2013 poverty rate for those in Buffalo who worked full-time and year-round was 3.6 percent, down from 4.2 percent in 2012. But the poverty rate was 31 percent of Buffalo residents who worked part-time or only part of the year and 42.1 percent for those who did not work at all.

• Among Buffalo adults who did not graduate from high school, the poverty rate was 43.2 percent in 2013. The rate dipped to 25.2 percent for high school graduates and 10.5 percent for those with a college degree.

• In New York State, Buffalo had a lower poverty rate in 2013 than Rochester (35.4 percent) and Syracuse (33.2 percent) but higher than Albany (25.7 percent) and New York City (20.9 percent).

The statistics on those who struggle to make ends meet are sobering. But Oquendo refuses to be deterred. She juggles part-time work as a teacher’s assistant at the Belle Center, a full-time job at Baker Victory Services and a full class load at Erie Community College, where she studies education.

Still, there isn’t much left over once she pays her bills.

“There was one time where I had to stay without a car and a cell phone — those things that today are not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” Oquendo said. “But it was necessary to be cut off to actually get through the month to buy clothes, food.”

Hungry students

In few places can the impact of child poverty be felt more acutely than in the city’s classrooms.

“We are certainly aware that many of our students face economic hardships and the challenges that come with it,” Buffalo Public Schools Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie wrote in a statement. “We work, and often with partners in the community, to provide those supports that we can on every level: social, emotional and physical, so that school becomes a lesser worry as well as a safe haven in their lives.

“At the same time we recognize these needs, and we work to meet them because we know that a quality education is the best way out of poverty,” Ogilvie said.

Children living in poverty are less likely to have access to quality health care, early childhood education, consistent housing and a stable family environment, all things that research consistently shows can affect their learning.

Teachers can tell too many stories of students coming to school lacking basic needs like food and clothing.

“When you say poverty, you’re saying a child is probably not getting the healthy foods they need, their health needs aren’t being met, they may not have stable housing,” said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo. “All of these issues combined heavily impact a child’s ability to learn.”

Teacher Michelle Marciniak sees that need in her classroom in the small school where she works at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy on Walden Avenue. The school, Our Lady of Hope, was started by the mission to serve impoverished children on the city’s East Side. The mission provides children with a free education and also offers housing to some of its families.

“A lot of times the children come here and they are hungry, so we do give them breakfast and lunch,” Marciniak said. “Especially after the weekends you notice that sometimes the breakfasts are really piled on because maybe they haven’t had as much to eat over the weekend.”

The school, through the generosity of benefactors, is able to meet their needs in other ways, too.

“We give them all of their supplies, we give them their backpacks,” she said. “We have to because otherwise they would come with nothing.”

Other community agencies also try to address those needs with programs that aim to support the students and their families – and enable them to become more independent, or at least more financially stable.

At the Belle Center on the Lower West Side, many of the parents who use its before- and after-school programs are single mothers who depend on the center. The center also provides meals and day care assistance.

“If they had to put their children on the bus in the morning, they wouldn’t have that opportunity to get a job, to go off to work,” said Donna Glasgow, director of the center’s after-school program.

Buffalo Promise Neighborhood offers students and families access to a variety of health and social services that aim to help them create a stable environment for children. Those include an early childhood center and day care for working families, as well as after-school programs that give students a place to go when the school day is over.

“The wage issue, employment opportunities, educational training, all of these things are contributors,” said Tanya Staples, the organization’s director of community affairs. “How do we begin to move parents and their children through the pipeline, and ensure they will be successful?”

Sometimes the need outweighs the offerings.

Buffalo Promise Neighborhood started a program for students at one of the elementary schools with which it works, sending food home with the neediest students who showed signs of hunger.

The number of children served by the program has already increased from 40 to 60. This school year officials expect to serve about 100 children, roughly 20 percent of the school’s enrollment.

And even more could use the assistance.

The income gap

The spike in child poverty comes even as the city’s economy and downtown development appear to be improving.

Some see the increase as an extension of income inequity they say persists across the country, and continues to dog the Western New York region.

“The income inequity in our community as well as statewide and nationally continues to expand,” said Michael Weiner, president of the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County. “While the economy is still great for people who are employed, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who are struggling.”

“In our community there are some pretty substantial inequities,” he added. “Compare living in the city on the East Side or West Side to living in Orchard Park.”

Although just 3.6 percent of Buffalo residents who work full-time live below the poverty line, the numbers are significantly higher among those who work part-time or part of the year. In that group, some 31 percent fall below the poverty line.

Count Elisa Shanks among them. She was picking up her 3-year-old daughter, Elona, at Our Lady of Hope School on Wednesday after leaving a job training program at the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center. She wants to work in retail and has an eye toward attaining a degree in business administration.

“I just try to maintain, take care of the kids and make a better career to take care of them even better,” said Shanks, 28.

Her family of four falls well below the federal poverty guidelines, but she’s been able to get by.

Even as poverty takes a toll on the education system, many also believe schools are the solution.

“This is our anti-poverty plan,” said Rust of Say Yes, which offers college scholarships to city students and collaborates on other programs with the district.

“That’s investing in education. In time, as more students have more degrees, they’re going to have better jobs and be able to support themselves and contribute to the economy. Ultimately, their families and their children will have better access to education,” he said.

“We really believe that’s the best chance we have to break the cycle,” Rust said. “That’s why we do all this.”

Oquendo hopes that’s the case.

She envisions the day when she graduates with a degree, finds a steady job and won’t have to scrape by month to month.

“I can’t wait,” said Oquendo. “I’m gonna cry, scream, run, everything. That day is going to be my day. No one is going to stop me.”

email: tlankes@buffnews.com

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