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District Rates Magnify Issue Of Poverty

School 3 students in Dunkirk maneuver on climbing wall last March. File photo

On the surface, the U.S. Census statistics regarding Chautauqua County’s poverty rate appear to lack urgency. The most recent results, released in August, show a figure of 16.3%, about 3.3% higher than New York state.

In the two cities, however, the numbers are much greater with Jamestown at 29.5% and Dunkirk at 25.1%. One agency that continues to monitor the struggles associated with many of households here is Chautauqua Opportunities Inc. In its 2020 Community Needs Assessment document, public assistance is very much on its radar.

“A higher level of poverty means that more people will rely on public assistance as a means of paying for food, rent, and other needs,” the document notes. “The Census Bureau also reports that 18.9% of households in Chautauqua County received (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits in 2016, a stark increase from the 2011 figure of 14.4%. Additionally, they report that 4.6% of households in Chautauqua County received cash public assistance and 7.4% of households received (Supplemental Security Income) benefits in 2016.”

Simply stated, quality of life for many here does not seem to be getting better. As numerous employers locally practically beg for applicants, individuals and families facing economic challenges at home continues to rise.

New York state, for its part, has championed a higher minimum wage. Starting on Dec. 31, the hourly rate will increase from $12.50 an hour to $13.20 — an 8% rise.

“Companies, particularly those that employ low-wage workers, are already raising wages and in some cases offering incentives to hire amid a labor-shortage that is showing no sign of abating, and it makes sense to raise the wage floor now and continue supporting New York’s families while providing a predictable path forward for businesses,” state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon said last month. “With (this) action we are continuing the work of building back with equity and justice.”

More than 10 years ago, the state minimum wage was $7.25 per hour. With another increase coming on the eve of 2022, the rate will have gone up 82%. Workers aside, that is a significant jump for some small businesses owners to endure.

Families here, however, do not appear to be benefiting from these mandated changes. In fact, area public-school statistics magnify this reality.

Each year in the state Education Department’s report card is a category for economic disadvantage, which previously was under the reduced and free lunch listing. According to this data, every district has its struggles.

Here are the percentages, by district, from 2019-20 compared to 2009-10:

¯ Bemus Point — 32% economically disadvantaged in 2019-20; 12% in 2009-10; up 20%

¯ Brocton — 60%; 72%; down 12%.

¯ Cassadaga Valley — 60%; 44%; up 16%.

¯ Chautauqua Lake — 48%; 39%; up 9%.

¯ Clymer — 51%; 30%; up 21%.

¯ Dunkirk — 74%; 56%; up 18%.

¯ Falconer — 51%; 37%; up 14%.

¯ Forestville — 51%; 31%; up 20%.

¯ Fredonia — 41%; 29%; up 12%.

¯ Frewsburg — 46%; 25%; up 21%.

¯ Gowanda — 61%; 49%; up 12%.

¯ Jamestown — 71%; 64%; up 7%.

¯ Panama — 47%; 34%; up 13%.

¯ Pine Valley — 67%; 47%; up 20%.

¯ Randolph — 52%; 42%; up 10%.

¯ Ripley — 68%; 70%; down 2%.

¯ Sherman — 61%; 57%; up 4%.

¯ Silver Creek –61%; 43%; up 18%.

¯ Southwestern — 38%; 25%; up 13%.

¯ Westfield — 56%; 39%; up 17%.

All these districts, it must be noted, have seen steep declines in student enrollment during the past decade. Nevertheless, need has grown so much that many schools now offer free breakfasts and lunch to all students under the federal Community Eligibility Program. This ends a stigma associated with free lunch, while bringing stability to the students who need it most.

“Chautauqua County is one of the poorest counties in New York state, with a median income — $44,304 — well below that of the state — $62,765 — and below those of the nearby counties of Cattaraugus, Erie, Wyoming, and Niagara,” the COI 2020 report notes.

This year, the threshold for free lunch and breakfast was $34,450 for a student from a household of four and $40,352 for a household of five. Even with a rising state minimum wage, that requires two parents or guardians who are both working to reach that threshold in some cases. That, in itself, is a local crisis that area schools have been coping with more and more each year.

Even more telling for this community are the increases in our most affluent districts. Bemus Point, Fredonia, Frewsburg and Southwestern have all seen major spikes in students being “economically disadvantaged.”

That, in itself, proves this is not just a rural or city issue. It is something the whole county must acknowledge.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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