Well over 100 people from across the Capital Region turned out Thursday evening to tell their stories about poverty and the fight against it to a labor-religion commission preparing a statewide report on the issue.
The hearing of the Truth Commission on Poverty in New York State, held at First United Methodist Church on State Street, began with a rousing gospel-style sing-along about standing up to oppression led by Charon Hribar of New York City, and it drew a mix of the poor, young and old, and people who are social activists.
"Three million people live below the poverty line in New York state, and many more are struggling," said the Rev. Emily McNeill, executive director of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, based in Latham. "Poverty is not an aberration or individuals making poor decisions; it is systematic."
McNeill said Thursday's hearing was one of three being held around the state, and the only one being held in the Capital Region. One was held in rural Allegany County in June, and another will be held on Long Island in September.
"We definitely wanted to have one in an upstate city, and we're based in Latham," McNeill said. "Schenectady has the highest poverty rate in the Capital Region."
By the commission's estimate, about 40 percent of households in the Capital Region struggle financially, meaning poverty is a widespread issue.
Barnett Heglar of Albany was among those giving testimony.
"My basic message is I think they've got to do more," he said before the hearing, when a communal meal was served. "It's not enough. They're not putting a dent in poverty."
He noted that apartment rents in Albany have risen quickly, while the wages being paid for the available jobs haven't.
"To me, it's sad. You should have plenty of well-paying jobs, and it's not like that," he said.
Sandra Moody of the Albany Black Veterans Association said military veterans are too often pigeonholed, or are told that their military skills don't transfer well to civilian life.
"If you have a family or child, there's help," she said. "As a single person, there's no help you can get unless you have a problem."
Ursula Rozum, upstate campaign coordinator for the Campaign for New York Health, said people were telling stories about how their health care issues are linked to poverty. "What's great about this event is it shows how all the issues are connected," she said.
"Health care costs are the leading cause of bankruptcy, and many of those who go bankrupt have health insurance," Rozum said. "They can't afford the premiums and co-pays."
"I think it's important to bring the issue of poverty from the preconscious to the conscious," said Cessie Alfonso of Citizen Action of New York, a Troy resident and member of the commission. "We have an issue with poverty, but if we don't highlight it, it will be minimized."
She noted that much of the public debate in Washington is about reducing services the government provides to the poor.
Three hours of testimony were planned for Thursday evening, and McNeill said people may also submit video or written testimony, by emailing her at [email protected] by Aug. 14.
A report on the commission's statewide findings will be released in mid-October at an event in Binghamton.
"The three events in New York are part of a larger series of events around the country," McNeill said. "They're trying to build a new poor people's movement."