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Lagging in 2020, Buffalo needs to close gaps to prosper by 2030

Rod Watson

The business sector cliché is that what gets measured gets done, but it’s an equally useful axiom for assessing civic progress as Buffalo Niagara enters the 2020s.

For all of the ribbon-cuttings and upbeat speeches heralding undeniable progress on the waterfront, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and elsewhere, looking at it in a vacuum can lead to self-delusion – which can be useful for politicians, but not so much for the rest of us.

Fortunately, a couple of outsiders’ perspectives provide a sobering assessment of where we stand compared to other regions, as well as measuring sticks to determine if we’re really making progress.

One comes from LendEDU, a website that compares consumer financial products. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it came up with a ranking for "Cities Ready for Economic Advancement in the New Decade."

The tally is based on six criteria assessing socioeconomic health: the percent of the 24 and under population with at least an associate degree, net business openings in 2015-16, net population change from 2010-18, percent change in income in 2017-18, the number of residential building permits issued in 2018 and the percent change in employment compared to population.

Buffalo tied with Reading, Pa., at 249th out of the 380 cities analyzed, not faring particularly well in any of the categories compared to other cities.

Rochester came in 245th while Syracuse was 270th, indicating the economic climate in New York State may be part of the problem. But that’s cold comfort when Buffalo has to compete nationally, not just statewide, to attract businesses and jobs.

And if you’re counting on the coming generation to accelerate Buffalo’s progress, a second analysis due out later this month may not offer much comfort – unless the region has made a turnaround that escaped me.

Five years ago, the Child Opportunity Index was unveiled by Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management and Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. It’s a numerical aggregate of a variety of "indicators of conditions children need to live healthy lives and to grow into productive adults."

Unlike single indicators – such as the child poverty rate, or school performance – the index combines 19 such measures into a composite to capture the overall conditions kids are growing up in, compared to kids in other neighborhoods in the region, and then presents it in eye-catching fashion.

The 2015 color-coded map at graphically depicts the separate and unequal childhoods being lived in Erie County, telling us visually what we know intuitively but find easier to ignore when it’s not staring us in the face in vivid shades of opportunity and despair.

Large swaths of Buffalo’s East Side as well as the Lower West Side, Black Rock, Riverside and adjacent parts of the City of Tonawanda made up nearly all of the lowest-opportunity areas for Erie County’s children. These are the neighborhoods where the children who start out with the least have the longest odds stacked against them.

[See the map]

Not surprisingly, places like Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda, Orchard Park and Hamburg were at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

The question: How much will have improved for kids in the low-opportunity neighborhoods when the updated index comes out later this month?

If we’re counting on the next generation to accelerate progress and position Buffalo Niagara to move up that ranking of cities poised for economic advancement, that can only happen if there’s no large segment of the population acting as a drag on growth. Scoring well on the LendEDU measures in the future is directly related to closing the gaps identified by the Child Opportunity Index right now.

Some cities have used the index as a catalyst. For instance, the Heller School points to Albany’s upgrading of parks and playgrounds to ensure equitable access after the index rated it one of the worst cities for black children to grow up in relative to white kids.

Buffalo Niagara also has begun talking about disparities that hold the region back. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, for example, appointed a panel in 2015 to recommend ways to combat poverty, and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown pointed to collaborative efforts that reduced the city’s child poverty rate and the rate for African Americans and Hispanics in 2017, while his administration and the school system – as well as Poloncarz – also have tried to address the digital divide that threatens to leave some kids behind. Buffalo’s public housing playgrounds also were upgraded after a Buffalo News investigation revealed broken, missing and dangerous equipment.

When the new index comes out, it will tell us whether such efforts were window dressing or effective attempts to give all kids a fair chance. It also will be a good indication of whether we’ll be among the "Cities Ready for Economic Advancement in the New Decade" when 2030 gets here before we know it.

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