Op-ed column: Helping the poor

Staff and volunteers at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany weren’t surprised to see the pov

Staff and volunteers at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany weren’t surprised to see the poverty statistics released recently by the New York State Community Action Association.

The report found that 30 percent of children in the city of Schenectady — and more than a third of children in Albany — are living in poverty. Children in some of our rural communities fare little better: In Fulton and Montgomery counties, about a quarter of residents under age 18 are living below the federal poverty level.

We see every day the faces of those struggling to make ends meet; many of them were solidly in the middle class until a layoff, a cutback in work hours or a sudden increase in medical expenses sent them to our doors for help with food, housing and other basic needs.

The release of NYSCAA’s report provides an opportunity for state legislators to pause in the frenzy of budget negotiations to renew their commitment to these struggling families and individuals in their communities.

Making fiscal sense

In these tight fiscal times, they’ll discover that maintaining support for our most vulnerable neighbors also makes good economic sense.

For instance, the state’s investment in homeless prevention programs keeps families out of emergency shelters that cost taxpayers much more in the long run. You can do the math: United Tenants of Albany receives $75,000 to prevent 100 evictions over the course of a year. If just 50 of those families instead lost their apartments and had to go into emergency shelters for a 30-day stay, the cost would be $202,500; the cost of 50 individuals in emergency shelters for a month is $105,000. While maintaining homelessness prevention services is clearly a good investment, these programs are at risk of losing most of their funding in the state budget.

Supportive services for those formerly homeless who are living in single-room occupancy (SRO) units and for formerly homeless families and young adults are also on the list of possible cuts in the state budget. Case managers help tenants maintain their housing and avoid a return to homelessness. They also help tenants with daily living skills, attend to physical and mental health issues, improve budgeting skills, seek and obtain employment and address other barriers to being fully contributing members of our communities.

A study by the Supportive Housing Network showed that the cost of supporting a family in stable housing with case management and other support services through the Catholic Charities Housing Office was half of what it cost to support the same family members while they were homeless and without such support services. Thanks to SRO supportive services, 80 percent of new tenants moving in while on public assistance are no longer on public assistance within six months.

If just 255 tenants living in SROs return to homelessness, any savings from the cut to this program would be spent instead on shelter and other expensive emergency services. Also, if just 163 families currently served by the supportive housing program become homeless, any savings from the cut would be lost in increased shelter costs alone.

Job programs

The Wheels for Work program, meanwhile, provides public assistance recipients and other low-income individuals seeking employment with reliable transportation essential to finding and keeping a job that will lift their families out of poverty. In 2009, donations of cars and other supports to address barriers to employment enabled 62 workers in Albany, Rensselaer and Schenectady counties to find jobs, to move to better-paying jobs or to increase their hours enough to reduce reliance on public assistance.

Program participants — who include women fleeing domestic violence and rural residents without access to public transportation — also have furthered their education and established savings accounts, important steps toward long-term financial security.

Wheels for Work recently was named by Catholic Charities USA as a model program for lifting families out of poverty, and one that should be replicated around the country. Yet the governor has proposed cutting funding for this program, which meets everyone’s goals of getting more New Yorkers to work.

Providing children with a healthy, secure start in life is another goal that benefits us all. The Maternal and Early Childhood Foundation helps accomplish this by funding programs that support low-income young mothers in areas of the state where few other supports exist.

Community Maternity Services, a Catholic Charities agency, relies on the foundation for its programming in rural counties such as Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie. Participants credit staff with helping them connect to prenatal care and to health insurance, learn healthy parenting skills, get to medical and other important appointments, find services for disabled children, locate appropriate child care, and pursue educational and vocational opportunities that lead to employment.

Consider that 5,600 pregnant teens and young parents and their families statewide received such services and achieved such milestones through the foundation in 2009, and the $2 million annual investment seems well worth it.

I urge lawmakers to read the Community Action Association’s report, review the statistics for their communities and link those numbers to the choices they face in current budget negotiations. It is clear that keeping our most vulnerable residents out of emergency housing and providing pathways out of poverty are both the most cost-efficient and most compassionate responses.

Marianne Comfort lives in Albany. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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