Reports this week that Rochester is the fifth-poorest city in America brought predictable and impassioned calls for the community to “do more.”
At a dramatic press conference, the presenter spoke loftily about this high poverty rate being an offense to the community and that honor and duty and apple pie all demanded that “more be done.”
Poverty was cited as a cause for greater philanthropy, enhanced social welfare programs and more community involvement.
And the next day, coincidentally, the United Way had a big fundraiser for causes and non-profits of various stripes.
The assumption is that high poverty rates call for more welfare and social programs. We work on the premise that the more poor people we have the more we should give.
But I’m not sure that premise is correct.
And maybe instead of presuming something, we should do some analysis, and see if past experience can teach us anything.
Because there is a poverty paradox in Rochester. The more we give, the poorer we get.
For almost a century, Rochester has been among the nation’s top cities for both per capita charitable contributions and access to social welfare programs. For almost 100 years, Rochester has been one of America’s most generous cities.
Dating back to the prime of George Eastman’s life, Rochester has been on the progressive edge of offering charitable and social service assistance to the impoverished. The predecessor of the national United Way movement itself was created in Rochester. The Rochester system of settlement houses welcomed the newcomers from both overseas and the black South.
For a century, we have been one of America’s most generous and services-rich communities.
We have done more, under the dominant paradigm, to reduce poverty in our community than virtually any other city in America.
And yet, over those years poverty has increased and become more debilitating.
And now, we have the fifth-highest poverty rate in America, and some of our neighborhoods have almost-unmatched concentrations of poverty.
Nation-leading generosity has led to nation-leading poverty.
We’ve done more and gotten less.
And people are pointing to the new statistics and shouting that we must do more of what we have led the nation in doing for almost100 years.
That doesn’t make sense.
So I’d like to offer an alternative.
Instead of taking a social-welfare approach to poverty, perhaps we should take a jobs-creating approach to poverty.
Not another inane works program or jobs-training program – neither of those ever work – but an approach of city government that puts private-sector jobs creation at the top of the list.
Not through government development programs – which have also been stunning failures – but by creating direct incentives for businesses that build in the city and pay good wages to people in the city.
Specifically, people from the most impoverished of neighborhoods.
Not the fundamentally dishonest “job creation” of New York’s current IDA culture, where tax dollars are frittered away on bull-crap projects for fat cats too crooked to pay their own bills.
But rather a targeted tax abatement system whereby the city throws open its arms to job-creating businesses. All of them. Lots and lots of them.
For example, the city should forgive the property tax of any business opening or operating in the poorest neighborhoods that employs at least 10 people from those neighborhoods, fulltime, at wages of at least $20 an hour.
And that $20 hour wage is not to create some artificial “living wage” threshold, it is to tell businessmen that the enterprises they launch need to offer such value to customers that employees truly earn their high wages.
Understanding that wage variability is a function of operating margin, a similar no-tax offer should be made to businesses that employee 20 or more people at $15 an hour, fulltime.
Beyond taxes, the city needs to pull its vexatious inspectors up short and cut through the crap, red tape and harassment that city workers have come to represent for Rochester businesses.
City staff should be there to help wage-paying businesses, not trip them up and fine them and impede their progress and growth. Make permits, fees and approvals quick, easy and cheap.
Roll out the red carpet for business.
Poverty is a function of low income.
Jobs raise income.
Businesses are necessary for jobs.
The city must embrace businesses.
Businesses in Rochester that employ people living in Rochester are the only hope for reducing Rochester’s poverty rate.
The answer is entrepreneurship, not entitlement.
For 100 years we have given more than almost any other city in America. We were pioneers in the social welfare and public philanthropy movements.
And now we’re the worst of the worst.
All we did was dig the hole deeper.
Passing out bigger welfare checks isn’t the answer. One more social program isn’t the answer.
A job is the answer.
A real job. A private-sector job at a private-sector business.
To fight poverty, invite business. Remove the suffocating burden of city taxes and unnecessary regulation. Embrace business and see poverty fall.
That’s the solution.
We’ve tried things the other way for 100 years. It’s about time we tried them this way.
Because more of the same will only get us more of the same, and that is insane.