GUEST COMMENTARY: Our Occupiers, the mayor, and Rochester's 13 percentBY SUSAN ORR AND JIM JOHNSON
After protracted conflict and numerous arrests, Mayor Tom Richards and Occupy Rochester reached an accord allowing the protesters to stay in Washington Square Park. Their agreement is crucially important because absent access to public space, effective freedom to speak and assemble, and along with them democracy, wither.
That said, the mayor has not actually engaged with our Occupiers. He claims, after all, that while sympathetic to many of their concerns, most fall far beyond the purview of his administration. Is it so difficult to see how "We Are the 99%!" is relevant to Rochester?
The Brookings Institution just issued a report tracing the growth since 2000 of concentrated urban poverty in America. The basic concept is this: Someone lives in concentrated poverty not just if she herself lives at or beneath the officially defined poverty line, but if 40 percent or more of all those residing in the same census tract as she also live at or below the official poverty level. In 2010 the official poverty level was $22,300 for a family of four.
Using this metric, the situation in Rochester is grim. Of the primary cities in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in America, Rochester ranks third in concentrated poverty. In relative terms Rochester is just ahead of Syracuse (fourth) and significantly ahead of Albany (20th) and Buffalo (29th). In absolute terms, Rochester has a population of 202,644, of whom 56,813 live at or below the poverty level. Of that poor population, 26,705 reside in concentrated poverty. That is just over 13 percent of the city's entire population.
Concentrated poverty has negative consequences. It tends to depress educational quality, real estate values, and private economic investment while placing upward pressure on crime rates, the cost of living, and local government expenditures. Each of these trends is disturbing. Shouldn't Mayor Richards consider them to be central to his concerns? According to the Brookings report, those living amid concentrated poverty confront a "double burden" - their individual poverty is compounded by contextual features of "the place in which they live." This, in turn, "complicates the jobs of policymakers and service providers working to promote connections to opportunity and to alleviate poverty."
The Brookings report, however, neglects other crucially important factors. Concentrated urban poverty has dire political consequences. While it does not break down the Rochester numbers by race, the report notes that, nationally, "African Americans remained the single largest" racial group experiencing concentrated poverty. There is no reason to suspect that Rochester diverges from that pattern.
Political scientists Cathy Cohen and Michael Dawson have demonstrated that African Americans who live in concentrated poverty are more likely to believe that politics works to the advantage of the wealthy and white. And they are less likely to participate in politics in various ways. As in the Brookings report, these findings identify a contextual impact over and above the burden of individual poverty. Significantly, Cohen and Dawson use a much lower threshold (30 percent) to measure the effects of concentrated poverty. So, given the levels the Brookings report establishes, it is likely that the negative political consequences of concentrated poverty in Rochester are especially pronounced.
Put bluntly, concentrated poverty like that found in Rochester is bad for our democracy. It reduces political participation among the least advantaged, making it unlikely that the political system will be responsive to their interests and values. Like their counterparts elsewhere, Occupy Rochester decries economic hardship and the highly skewed distribution of wealth and income. The concerns they articulate point directly to the plight of many city residents. This should not be hard for the mayor to understand.
Susan Orr is assistant professor of political science at the SUNY College at Brockport. Jim Johnson is professor of political science at the University of Rochester.