The statistics are alarming.
According to a community report released by the John R. Oishei Foundation's Mobile Safety-Net Team, poverty in Niagara Falls is growing, while the city's population is shrinking. The number of Niagara Falls residents living in poverty has grown 2 percent since 2000, a significant change when put in context of the city's overall population decline of 9 percent since 2000.
Approximately 10,900 Niagara Falls residents, or more than 20 percent, live on incomes below federal poverty levels, identified as $23,550 for a family of four.
Child poverty alone is estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $500 billion annually in lost productivity, increased health care costs, and higher criminal justice expenditures.
Addressing those statistics was the focus of the second annual Poverty Conference held at Niagara University March 7.
A 150-person cross-section of elected officials, block club delegates, nonprofit partners and foundation representatives convened in Dunleavy Hall to discuss this year's theme, "Governmental Role in Addressing Poverty - Moving from Policy to Action."
The Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., Niagara University president, welcomed attendees by reiterating his, and the university's, Vincentian commitment to act as bridges to the world of the poor and marginalized.
"At Niagara, we are fully committed to engaging our faculty, staff and students to serve whenever and wherever we are most needed," he said. "Our students provide more than 1,000 hours of meaningful community service to the surrounding areas every week. I want them to do more."
Maher continued by emphasizing his eagerness to collaborate with service organizations, stressing poverty is a community-wide responsibility and, thus, all must lend a helping hand to those on the margins of society.
"Every person in this room is making a great effort to advocate for those who need it most. We will walk with you on this journey," he said.
The conference was presented by the Niagara County Coalition for Services to the Homeless in co-sponsorship with Buffalo/Niagara Falls and Erie/Niagara Counties Continuum of Care and Niagara University.
The theme commemorated the 50-year anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson's State of the Union address, during which the former U.S. president introduced legislation pertaining to the country's "war on poverty." The coalition realizes the need to examine poverty's impact within the community and that addressing poverty is the responsibility of all sectors in society.
Robert D. Gioia, president of the John R. Oishei Foundation, served as the keynote speaker. The Oishei Foundation released a Niagara Falls community report in February. It is part of a larger, multi-year effort being undertaken by the Mobile Safety-Net Team, a task force created to study issues related to poverty throughout the region.
During his 45-minute presentation, Gioia highlighted the foundation's strategic plan, part of which emphasizes the importance of higher education.
"We can invest billions into our community, but if we don't create a curriculum and we don't create an opportunity for these young men and women to be able to cycle into a paying job, then we've failed," Gioia said. "I have to give credit to the administrators of the 21 colleges and universities in our region who are sitting down together to really talk about how to redefine and redesign the college curriculum to meet the needs of the future."
A panel discussion on the legislative role in addressing poverty included State Sen. George Maziarz, NU Class of 1976; Assemblywoman Jane Corwin; Assemblyman John Ceretto, '75, M.S.Ed.'78; Lockport Mayor Anne McCaffrey; and Niagara Falls City Council Chairman Charles Walker.
Several afternoon workshops allowed attendees the opportunity to learn about programs facilitating change in the community, especially those that improve economic stability and advancement for individuals living in poverty.
The event was coordinated through the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M. Institute for Civic Engagement, which was established in 2011 to reinforce Niagara University's commitment to the region by strengthening existing community partnerships and forming new town-gown relationships.
"We are proud to represent the university on this important initiative," stated Dr. David Taylor, director of the Levesque Institute. "This conference speaks to the heart of our Catholic and Vincentian mission by serving the community and seeking solutions to reducing poverty and the systemic conditions that are created by it."
For more information on the Levesque Institute, call 716-205-0074 or visit www.niagara.edu/ice.