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Poverty Fighters Find New Ways to Educate and Collaborate

Tom Hirschl, professor of development sociology and co-chair of the Program Work Team on Poverty and Economic Hardship, demonstrates his poverty calculator to other team members. Photo by Lindsay France/University Photography.

To develop new knowledge for fighting economic insecurity in upstate New York, a set of leaders has formed a network to collaborate and share best practices.

The Program Work Team on Poverty and Economic Hardship, a group of Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) staff, Cornell faculty, community leaders and service providers from across the state, met in person for the first time May 31 in Warren Hall. The goal? To talk about how to improve their work and extend the reach of their programs.

“People are seeing we need to rethink our ideas about poverty and solutions to poverty,” said Tom Hirschl, professor of development sociology and team co-chair. “We need to discover knowledge that addresses the reality of American society, where 40 percent of the population between 25 and 60 years of age will be poor at some point during their adult life, and then develop new ideas to combat it.”

A million residents in upstate New York live in poverty, and upstate cities are among those with the worst concentrated poverty of any region in the United States, he noted.

By the end of the day, participants said fresh ideas to pursue include:

  • meet in local groups to continue the discussion;
  • better assess individuals’ and families’ needs and match services to address them;
  • build more trust with the population experiencing poverty;
  • take on more advocacy roles; and
  • involve people living in poverty in decision-making processes.

Rosemary Pellett, a Speakers Bureau member of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, suggested making better use of the firsthand experiences of people, like her, who have lived in poverty. For example, people who have had food insecurity could help teach CCE nutrition classes to people facing poverty. “Even though the instructors have book smarts, they haven’t lived it. Once a person knows we truly know how they feel, they are more receptive,” she said. “I’ve been there, and I’ve done it.”

During the forum, the team split off into small groups to discuss a variety of topics. The forum used a discussion method that draws on the expertise of all the participants.

Hirschl spoke about his web-based poverty calculator. Based on 50 years of longitudinal data and modeled after heart disease calculators, it predicts the likelihood of an individual falling into poverty, depending on their education level, marital status, age and whether they are white or non-white – four of the strongest predictors of economic instability. Hirschl is initiating research on whether exposure to these data affect ideas about poverty, he said. “We seek to understand if and how knowledge about poverty risk affects peoples’ attitude and willingness to act,” he stated.

Daniel Lichter, the Ferris Family Professor of Policy Analysis and Management and Robert S. Harrison Director of the Institute for Social Sciences, talked about his research. It suggests Hispanic immigration revitalizes local economies and communities that have suffered job and population losses in recent decades. Lichter is particularly interested in the welfare of Latino children, he said.

“One of the things I argue is, it’s time to invest in children, perhaps as never before,” he said. “Diversity is increasing most rapidly among young children, who will replace America’s aging baby boomers over the next decade or two.”

Andrew Fagan, executive director of CCE in Chemung and Tioga counties and team co-chair, talked about an anti-poverty program he is hoping to launch in Elmira. Poverty Stoplight is a framework used in 32 countries, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., to help people measure their level of poverty. It also helps them to identify strategies and community resources to move themselves out of poverty, he said.

Participants in the forum included staff from CCE offices across the state and representatives from Chemung County Habitat for Humanity; the office of U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Tioga County Anti-Hunger Task Force; Food Bank of the Southern Tier; WSKG; Brofenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s Building Bridges Coalition; and Tioga Opportunities, a community action agency.

Fagan noted some CCE representatives said they shy away from doing advocacy work – and that might need to change.

“We’re recognizing that … by not advocating for those we work with or the value that we bring, we’re fighting an uphill battle,” Fagan said. “The work we do is critical to the health of our communities.”

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.