Representing Poverty Upstate
from her job at The Marriot. Six children and one grandchild
under her roof entitle her to Medicaid benefits. When her
daughter, Kayla gave birth to her first child at 15, Deb was
given custody of the grandchild and the baby's Medicaid card was
added to the family's pile. Photograph © Brenda Ann Kenneally
Considered in terms of poverty rate, the string of cities that stretch across New York State - Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Albany/Schenectady/Troy - are a disgrace. On this dimension New York is sandwiched right there between Oklahoma and Alabama. It has the 12th highest poverty rate of all 50 states and has far and away the highest rate of poverty in the northeast. But the statewide poverty rate of 14.3% is positively rosy relative to the situation here in upstate.
In Rochester, the city where I teach, 29.1% of the population lives at or below the poverty rate. Of children in the city, the rate explodes to 48.7%. The percentage of families in the city subsisting at half the official poverty rate is just over 17%. The rates vary, but not by much for the other upstate cities I mentioned above. (The national poverty rate for the entire U.S. is 12.4%, surely bad enough, but it is less than the rate for New York as a whole and nothing compared to Rochester or any of the other upstate cities.) You can refer to this report from the Fiscal Policy Institute in Albany for figures. And this study by The Brookings Institution shows that the rate of concentrated poverty among the working poor in Rochester is not only deplorable but increasing.* During the period 1999-2005 the rate of concentrated poverty in the city increased more than 13%, the fourth highest increase in the nation. The impact of such poverty, as political scientists Michael Dawson and Cathy Cohen established a decade and a half ago, extends beyond its dire direct effects on the health and well-being of individuals to collective consequences, especially a pronounced dampening of political participation.
The numbers are numbing. They show, however, the depths of the poverty that Brenda Ann Kenneally depicts in her harrowing work, much of which is set in her own home town of Troy. Kenneally recently won the 2008 Canon Female Photojournalist award. Her project Upstate Girls won the 2007 "Community Awareness Award" from Picture of the Year International; you can find the series (from which I lifted the image above) here. You can find even more of her work here.
Note to Obama supporters: I have said this here before   but it bears repeating. When you hear your candidate talk about faith-based initiatives - let's be honest, about charity - as the centerpiece of official anti-poverty efforts, a cursory look at the numbers for upstate cities or even a brief consideration of Kenneally's photography immediately should give you a sense of just how clueless he really is. When you hear him derided as "liberal," you should immediately start to grasp just how far to the right American political discourse has swung.
* Concentrated poverty is measured by the percentage of Federal tax filers in a specified area (a zip code) who are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Note that one has to be working to file with the IRS.