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Mayor Warren's goal for a poverty-stressed city


The start of a new year is a time for making resolutions. And in her New Year's Day speech marking the beginning of her second term, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren laid out a huge one for the community: attacking economic inequality.

The city's poverty rate is one of the highest in the nation. And many Rochesterians are poor even though they are employed. They just don't earn much money. Some are in double-standard jobs, earning less than other employees doing the same job in the same company. Others are in the kinds of jobs that don't pay much, period.

It's not news that the Rochester area has lost a lot of manufacturing jobs. Many of them paid good wages and didn't require high-level skills. The jobs that have replaced them seem to be falling into two categories. Some pay very well but require advanced education and skills. Others require less education and few skills, but they don't pay enough to lift the workers out of poverty.

A report published last summer by the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, SEIU 1199, and the mayor's Office of Innovation had disturbing news. Many of the low-paying jobs are in two employment sectors that have become the largest in the Rochester area. Educational services, which includes child-care workers, is one. Health care and social assistance (hospital workers, home health aides) is the other.

That's where many of the working poor are employed. And many of them are women, people of color, and people with disabilities. People of color in particular are over-represented in those areas.

Educational level, obviously, is linked to salary level. But people with few skills used to be able to earn a decent living in the country's factories. That's no longer true.

In her inaugural speech, Warren quoted from Martin Luther King's "Where Do We Go from Here" address. "What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter," King asked 50 years ago, "if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”

King spent the last months of his life focused on economic justice, organizing the Poor People's Campaign. The poverty in Rochester and many other cities shows how far we still have to go to fulfill King's dream.

In her speech on Monday, Warren said she wants Rochester to continue King's work. But as she said, she can't pull that off by herself. Neither city nor county government can, although each can do things that help.

But if Rochester is to sharply reduce poverty, the private sector will have to help. And there, current leaders can follow the example of the late Xerox president Joe Wilson, whom Warren singled out in her inaugural speech. Wilson tried to improve employment opportunities for African Americans, at his own company and in the community.

Rochester needs that kind of leadership now, and Warren has met with the leaders of some local businesses and institutions to discuss their role in reducing poverty. These people can have a huge impact, not only on their own workforce but by changing the mindset of their peers. (A good place to start: Unshackle Upstate, a business effort that continues to object to the minimum wage increase, paid family leave, and other measures that can help the poor. Among its leaders: former Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy.)

Will Rochester do more than applaud Warren's call for economic justice? Will we do more than just talk about economic inequality? More than form a committee to work on it? Our recent history doesn't inspire hope. But this year is the 50th anniversary of the Poor People's March on Washington and the 50th anniversary of King's assassination. And the region will spend the year observing the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass.

It's hard to think of a better year to try.