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Time for WNY to start melting the ‘poverty iceberg’

A titanic crisis is hovering over Western New York, and solving it will require participation from everyone who has a stake in this region’s future.

With all the justifiable talk about a revitalized downtown core in Buffalo, it’s easy to get excited about the new tourism attractions, emerging business developments and residential living opportunities and not feel a more chilling reality.

That chill is called poverty.

The statistics for the region continue to be alarming. More so when poverty focuses on the most vulnerable people at each end of our community’s spectrum – children and older adults.

In the eight counties of Western New York, more than one in every five children under the age of 18 lives below the poverty level. That’s according to the latest five-year estimates through 2014 released by the American Community Survey as part of the U.S. Census Bureau.

Leading the region’s list is Chautauqua County, where almost 30 percent of children live below the poverty level, followed by Cattaraugus County at nearly 27 percent and Allegany County at 24.5 percent.

The figures are worse when you look at Western New York’s urban core. In the City of Buffalo, 47.8 percent of children under 18 are living below the poverty level. In the City of Niagara Falls, 37.7 percent of children live in poverty.

But those are 2014 figures. Dig deeper and compare with those in 2009, and the trend we see is disheartening – the total population under the age of 18 in our region is decreasing but the number living in poverty is increasing.

On the other end of the spectrum, older adults – those ages 65 and up – are also affected by these poverty trends. In Western New York, 8.5 percent of older adults, and almost 16 percent in Buffalo, live below the poverty level, according to 2014 figures. Older adults living in poverty increased 7.4 percent overall in Western New York, 4.3 percent in Buffalo, since 2009.

But what’s concerning is that these latest statistics only reveal one part of the story. It’s similar to an iceberg where you see only the top, but the majority of the iceberg – and its greatest potential for danger – lies beneath the water’s surface.

Call it the “poverty iceberg” where we see the census stats on the surface and below are the hidden faces of poverty – or the invisible poor – and the implications they have for our communities.

Many more families straddle that poverty line – only one job layoff or illness away from joining the official poverty statistics. Whether or not someone is “officially” in poverty can even change from week to week, but it doesn’t change the need for us to work to reduce the number of people facing those circumstances.

Families living in poverty, or on the brink of it, are also families living under stress. This is a difficult situation for children, who may not possess the coping skills to process and accommodate stress.

Numerous studies show how poverty negatively affects a child’s cognitive, physical and social-emotional development. These studies further demonstrate that children in poverty are more likely to perform lower academically, drop out of high school and suffer from poorer health as adults.

When more than 20 percent of Western New York’s under-18 population falls into this category, there are major ramifications for our community’s current and future capacity to deliver a quality workforce, provide proper health care and promote a citizenry that contributes to society.

There is already a lot of work being done to reduce the poverty rate, but in any sector, it all comes back to health. When people are physically, socially and emotionally healthy, they can reach their full potential. If people are healthy, they are employable, they are learning and they have a better chance of rising out of poverty.

Toward that end, the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York and our community partners are focused on improving the health of people in poverty by:

•  Ensuring lower-income communities have supportive health care systems, other than the emergency room, that accommodate working families and are easily accessed through public transportation.

•  Identifying ways we can prevent and address “triggers of decline” like falls, poor nutrition, isolation and elder abuse in older adults.

•  Slowing the growth of dental disease and other chronic diseases among children in poverty.

• Building young children’s social and emotional skills to ready them for kindergarten.

With such focus and community participation, our collective goal is to see the “poverty iceberg” start to melt in Western New York when the next round of statistics come out for 2019.

Ann F. Monroe is president of the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.