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County officials and others at the panel in Canton on Feb. 5, 2014. Photo: David Sommerstein
County officials and others at the panel in Canton on Feb. 5, 2014. Photo: David Sommerstein

How St. Lawrence County officials hope to counteract poverty

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Late last year, the Associated Press wrote that income inequality in the United States is at its worst since the 1920s.

Poverty is nothing new in St. Lawrence County: It's struggled economically for decades. The county has one of the highest unemployment rates in New York state, and people lean heavily here on social services. At a recent panel discussion at SUNY Canton, six of the people tasked with providing those services talked about how to deal with the problems the county's poorest residents are facing.

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Reported by

Zach Hirsch
Reporter and Producer

According to St. Lawrence County Social Services Commissioner Chris Rediehs, the number of people relying on medical and temporary assistance programs has grown 25 percent over the last five years: "At the moment, the residents of St. Lawrence County are in about as much economic trouble as ever."

At the moment, the residents of St. Lawrence County are in about as much economic trouble as ever.
Also over five years, 40 percent more people have enrolled in SNAP benefits (food stamps.) He says people are facing harder and harder times because lawmakers haven't faced income inequality head-on: "All too often, we've pursued policies that have not dealt with the root causes of problems."

All six of the panelists agreed that you can't talk about poverty without also discussing education. Tom Burns, Superintendent of BOCES for St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, said a good education can be a ticket out of poverty. But students in most North Country schools are at a disadvantage even before they enter the classroom.

He held up a skinny document, 3 or 4 pages long: "Of all of the high school, grades 9-12, students in St. Lawrence County, these are all the course offerings that they have available to them," Burns said.

Compare that to a wealthier school district, he said, where the course offerings take up a whopping 75 pages, and Burns said you're faced with what amounts to a "civil rights issue."

"That is where NY gets a failing grade, is how we slice the pie," said Assemblywoman Addie Russell, who is sponsoring legislation that would fund school districts across the state more evenly. Russel says the current funding structure directly hurts kids: "We're allocating money to school districts in a manner that continues to prop up the haves and hurt the have-nots," she said.

Steven Todd, assistant superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES, said teachers already do a lot to help out students in need, but they need to do even more: "One of the things that research shows is that emotional and social challenges and safety challenges that students from chronic poverty bring to school, it leaves them with a feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness. And nobody can do their best under those conditions," Todd said.

Todd says a poor family's reputation can follow a student through the system.

"We're very, very passionate people, educators," he said. "But unfortunately, sometimes we fall victim to what I refer to as the soft bigotry of low expectations. We say: 'oh, so sad for Suzy… home life is difficult, can't expect as much from them.' Well that's unacceptable. You're essentially relegating somebody to a second-class status by doing that."

The new farm bill President Obama signed into law earlier this month cuts the food stamps of 1.6 million Americans in 15 states, including New York. Every household will lose an average of 90 dollars in benefits each month.

Social services commissioner Chris Rediehs says the road ahead is rocky, but not totally bleak: "Do not accept that everything that seems hopeless is really hopeless. Tenacity is the key to addressing poverty."

The first step to fighting poverty in the North Country, the panelists agreed, is waking up to the fact that it's all around us.

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