DUNKIRK — Jeff Smith, executive director of the St. Susan Center in Jamestown that offers meals for all who come through its doors, sees daily the impact of poverty in the south county.
Since 2009, the numbers of meals served by his agency has shot up 51 percent to 122,406 in 2016. This year, it is on a pace to match or exceed those numbers.
Smith was one of six panelists who took part in Wednesday’s Community Forum on Poverty at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in Dunkirk. Also attending the later sessions were U.S. Rep. Tom Reed and state Assemblyman Andrew Goodell. The event was presented by Chautauqua Opportunities Inc. and moderated by Roberta Keller, COI executive director.
All panelists, including Smith, gave some background on where they worked. For instance, Rebecca Ruiz, of the Chautauqua Center with offices in Dunkirk and Jamestown, mentioned 60 percent of its patients come in because they are on Medicaid. Charles Leichner, Cassadaga Valley superintendent, spoke of how children in poverty normally are not “school ready.”
“We have some kids who are coming back to school next week and will say, ‘Europe was really cool,’” he said. “Then we’re going to have some other kids come back and they never left their back yard. So there’s a difference when you talk about preparation to learn.”
Josiah Lamp, director of housing and community development at COI, told the 70 people in attendance for the event about the positives and drawbacks of the county’s housing stock. The average house, he said, was built in 1946.
“We have a lot of really beautiful, good historic homes that we’ve preserved, but we also have some homes … that have created challenges for communities,” Lamp said. “Dilapidated housing decreases home values and affects the people living in these houses who are exposed to lead paint and asbestos.”
According to COI, about 19 percent of the county’s population — or 23,900 people — live in poverty. About 30 percent of those are children.
Reed spoke at the event for about an hour on Washington and how it impacts the lives of many here. He also spoke about the Problem Solving Caucus, a bipartisan committee of 40 House Democrats and Republicans that he co-chairs. He noted the caucus is making a difference in preventing a government shutdown, tax reform and some items on health care. “There’s a willingness to work together,” Reed said of the group.
Goodell spoke about an issue very familiar to local representatives: Medicaid. Goodell says New York state spends more than California and Florida combined.
“Medicaid is a huge percentage of the county budget,” he said, noting he is pushing to have the state pick up a greater cost than having it be passed on to local residents in county tax bills.