From Poverty to Opportunity: An Economic Strategy

This is a guest post written by Dominic Robinson, Vice President of Economic Inclusion and Director of the Work Train program at CenterState CEO.

There’s been a lot of talk about “poverty” in Syracuse lately. National reports have identified Syracuse as owning one of the highest rates of poverty in the country – and according to one study, the highest rates of concentrated poverty among Blacks and Latinos. This national attention has provided a necessary shock to the system. Business, political, and community leaders are rallying around the issue of poverty (and concentrated poverty) more than ever before. New York State, meanwhile, has commissioned anti-poverty initiatives in Syracuse, along with several other Upstate cities, where similar dynamics of concentrated poverty are prevalent.  For those of us who have long been working in the low-income communities of Syracuse, this is all welcome. For us to really move the needle on poverty, it must become a community priority. However, in order to “do something about poverty”, we must be committed to a deeper understanding of the issue and strategies that lead to real and lasting change.

Of course there are no easy answers. Poverty is a complex, multidimensional reality. However, first and foremost, we must recognize that at its core, poverty is an economic condition – and therefore requires economic solutions. Too often community leaders focus on the symptoms of poverty and therefore spend a lot of time and energy trying to tackle issues related to poverty like crime, health, housing, and community services. All of these are critical elements within a larger community strategy, but economic opportunity and stability must be elevated to the highest level of priority.

What would happen if our local leaders committed to dramatically increasing median credit scores in low-income neighborhoods? Our local and state governments spend considerable dollars to incentivize economic development. What if we prioritized economic development in target neighborhoods? And what if we prioritized the attraction and growth of businesses that offered living wage jobs that are accessible to residents of various ages and skill levels? What if we prioritized the redevelopment of vacant buildings in low-income communities and offered incentives for local, minority-owned businesses to occupy them? What if we made sure that local adult education and training programs were aligned with the needs of local employers? And what would happen if we better empowered service providers and community-based organizations to not only meet the basic needs of their clients, but also support them in accessing career pathways?  

Mange's International Market, located on the Northside of the City of Syracuse and run by one of our New American entrepreneurs.

Mange's International Market, located on the Northside of the City of Syracuse and run by one of our New American entrepreneurs.

If executed well, these are the kinds of policies and strategies that foster economic stability for individuals, families and communities – and in doing so, alleviate many of the conditions associated with poverty.

We also must recognize that poverty is a “systems-level” challenge that requires systems-level changes. We are a community that is rich with wonderful non-profits, who run effective programs that provide valuable resources and opportunities to individuals and families. But these programs cannot effectively change the dynamics of poverty alone. More than that, on numerous occasions over the past decade, I’ve heard low-income residents complain that public systems and social services can inadvertently perpetuate poverty. From the case manager, who essentially deterred her client from taking a $15/hour job because he would no longer qualify for her services, to the part-time health care worker who refuses a promotion and full-time hours because she would lose her childcare subsidy (and yet not be able to afford to pay for child care out of pocket), these stories illustrate some of the system-level fixes that are necessary.

Hopeprint, a nonprofit organization that helps connect refugees in Syracuse to the resources they need.

Hopeprint, a nonprofit organization that helps connect refugees in Syracuse to the resources they need.

On the other end of the continuum, we must recognize that economic development policies and strategies can sometimes spur growth but also reinforce income inequality. There’s nothing wrong with attracting white-collar jobs and high-end market rate housing to our urban neighborhoods, but we must also consider how we incentivize growth and opportunities that benefit low-income residents.

Finally, we must be very careful of approaching poverty from a deficit mentality. We cannot ignore the sad and severe realities of poverty, but we also cannot lose sight of all the strength, ability, and resiliency that is too often unseen or unappreciated in low-income communities. One might argue that reducing poverty starts with both recognizing and then unleashing the many hidden talents that are too often obscured and untapped in our community. There are thousands upon thousands of potential workers and entrepreneurs, yearning to contribute to our economy and rewrite our community’s narrative. They just need the opportunity.

Dominic Robinson (2).jpg

Dominic Robinson
VP of Economic Inclusion, CenterState CEO