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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
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Poverty’s impact cause for concern

By Sara Foss
At first glance, the health survey of Schenectady residents released Monday contains few surprises.
We already know that Schenectady has a high rate of teen pregnancy. We know that it has higher rates of asthma, diabetes and obesity, and that substance abuse is a major issue. We know that many residents lack health insurance and primary care physicians, and that as a result they are more likely to visit local ERs for problems that are not life-threatening. We know that there is a need for better mental health services in the city.
Such problems are typical of communities with high rates of poverty.
When I heard that the survey had identified five areas of concern, I was able to guess two or three of them right off the bat.
“Asthma,” I said. “Diabetes.”
That doesn’t mean the problems identified by the health survey should be ignored, or glossed over.
When I look at the results of the survey, I’m reminded of a quote from writer and security expert Bruce Schneier.
“I tell people that if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it,” Schneier wrote. “The very definition of ‘news’ is ‘something that hardly ever happens.’ It’s when something isn’t in the news, when it’s so common that it’s no longer news — car crashes, domestic violence — that you should start worrying.”
Titled “UMatter Schenectady,” the health survey was conducted by volunteers who went door-to-door asking residents about their health. The project was coordinated by the Schenectady Coalition for a Health Community, which is led by Ellis Medicine and Schenectady County Public Health Services, and funded by The Schenectady Foundation. The volunteers visited homes throughout the city, but made a greater effort to target needier residents.
I asked Erin Buckenmeyer, community health outreach coordinator at Ellis Medicine, whether the health problems described by the survey are linked to poverty.
“Absolutely,” she said.
Despite my somewhat cynical nature, I am, at heart, an optimist, and I like to think that problems can be solved.
But poverty has proven especially intractable.
And since many of the problems plaguing Schenectady can be linked to poverty, we can’t just throw up our hands and turn the page when presented with grim statistics and unpleasant headlines, no matter how familiar they might seem.
That might explain why I always take an interest in new efforts to reduce or eliminate poverty altogether. I’m always hoping someone will find a blueprint for tackling a problem that always seems to get worse, rather than better.
One group that’s hoping to come up with some new ideas for addressing poverty in the city of Schenectady is The Schenectady Foundation.
On Nov. 6, the organization will host a daylong conference to explore strategies for moving Schenectady families out of poverty. Also involved in the event are a number of local nonprofit organizations, such as the City Mission of Schenectady and Ellis Medicine, that are involved in UMatter Schenectady.
Robert Carreau, the executive director of The Schenectady Foundation, said he hopes the conference will kick off a conversation that will continue into 2014. Ideally, the groups involved in the conference would be able to reconvene in a year and see signs of progress, he said.
Poverty is “big,” Carreau said. “But we’re not giving up. We’ve got great things happening.”
My sense is that a grassroots, localized anti-poverty effort has potential.
The groups involved in both UMatter Schenectady and the anti-poverty conference are all actively involved in the community, and have a good sense of the area’s needs, assets and challenges. Perhaps, by combining forces, they’ll be able to come up with solutions and projects that really do make a difference.
Because while poverty in Schenectady might feel like old news, it really shouldn’t be.
In a column last week, I suggested that the six candidates for Schenectady City Council lacked a vision for the city of Schenectady. It’s probably also worth noting that none of them discussed the issues of poverty and health that the UMatter survey and Schenectady Foundation conference aim to tackle.
Here are some of the more notable UMatter findings:
• Twenty percent of survey respondents have asthma, which is a lot. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology estimates that in 2009, 8 percent of the U.S. population had asthma.
• About 37 percent of survey respondents said they smoke, compared with 18.7 percent of Schenectady County residents.
• One quarter of survey respondents have been told they have a form of depression; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 percent of the U.S. population suffers from some form of depression.
If these unusually high percentages — and I’ve just included a sample — aren’t a reason to worry, I don’t know what is.
By the way, I’ve been following the rollout of Obamacare with some interest, and I’m interested in hearing what people who are buying, or are attempting to buy, health insurance through the state exchange are encountering. Are you having a hard time accessing the website? Are the prices reasonable? Are the subsidies helping? Anyway, if you feel like telling me what it’s like to navigate this new program, please email me at or call 395-3193.
Sara Foss, a Gazette columnist, can be reached at Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at

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