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Bob Confer Column: Small town poverty is a big issue

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There is a food pantry at Zion Lutheran Church in Gasport that is open once per month. On any given distribution day, 20 to 35 families (encompassing 80 to 100 people) use the service. That’s a substantial number, given how small Gasport is.

If you tell those numbers to anyone, and specifically Gasportians, it’s met with amazement. They’ll claim that Gasport doesn’t look like it’s saddled with poverty and that they don’t really know anyone in need.

That’s the problem with poverty. It sneaks up on you. It often doesn’t look like it should and appears in places you’d least expect.

That’s especially the case in rural and small town America.

We all know the inner-cities are impoverished. It grabs the attention of the press, academia, and policymakers. And, it grabs a disproportionate amount of money and energy in the war on poverty.

Rural poverty, on the other hand, remains under the radar. You almost never hear about it on the nightly news and it’s even rarer yet to hear an elected official cast a spotlight on it. 

Maybe it’s because it’s less noticeable than it is in the big city. Rural poverty is less centralized and more spread-out through a given community with low-income families living next door to middle or high income folks. You don’t get that in cities where social classes tend to be segregated.

Maybe it’s because it’s fly-over country. The population centers, for better or worse, dictate thought and public policy throughout America. Everything outside of the likes of Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami is meaningless to powerbrokers. We live that here in the Empire State – New York City lawmakers determine what happens across the state, much to the detriment of upstate.

Regardless of why it’s ignored, it’s a problem nonetheless and, as many will find surprising, one greater than that of the cities.

In urban locales, 12 percent of the population is considered impoverished while 15 percent of rural and small town Americans are. 

That accounts for 9 million Americans living below the poverty line in towns identical to those where this news outlet has its readers.

Worse yet, of those 9 million people, a majority of them are children. While you may not know their circumstances in the home, it’s more than likely you know many of those kids. They could be your neighbors. They could be your kids’ friends. They could be the boy on your little league team.   

As the president of the board of the local Boy Scout council which serves eastern Niagara and the GLOW counties, I tell people all the time that we not a social club for boys, but rather a social service organization. Our duty is to deliver education and development to children, in need and out of need, to help them rise above any obstacles in their lives and prepare them for careers, service, and parenting.

When one looks at how the youth served by our council are besieged by poverty, you’ll understand my social service designation.

In Medina, 26% of the population under the age of 18 lives below the poverty line while in Batavia that rate is 27%. In Geneseo it’s 22% and in Albion it’s 12.

Or, on a more macro scale, consider the poverty rates for minors in each of the counties under our jurisdiction: Wyoming (13 percent), Niagara (16), Genesee (16), Orleans (20) and Livingston (22 percent).

Basically, 1-out-of-every-6 or 1-out-of-every-5 kids are impoverished in this region. 

That’s why our local school districts have so many free or discounted breakfast and lunch programs. In order to best utilize the wonderful public resources that our public schools offer, the children there need to be nourished or it’s all for naught.

That’s why food pantries are tested to their limits. 35 families at Gasport’s food pantry…that’s a lot. But it pales in comparison to the mobile food pantries and distributions that have taken place in Orleans County where hundreds of families line up at a time, their cars backed up for blocks or miles.

That’s why Medicaid and other public health programs over so heavily utilized – and, in turn, heavily-taxed – in upstate New York. Medicaid is a burden on our property and sales taxes because so many families are forced to utilize the program.

Most people wouldn’t expect such abject poverty in God’s Country. I don’t care if they’re visiting from a suburb or living right here in the epicenter. The unparalleled beauty of the fields, forests, and hills seem to do a fine job in hiding the fact that are some truly painful circumstances plaguing our rural communities and economies.

Small town poverty is a big issue. It’s time we brought this out of hiding and did our best as a people to initiate the policies — locally and nationally — to bring opportunity and prosperity to those who have been deprived of hope for far too long.

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