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RMAPI Calls on Voters to Quiz Candidates About Plans to Address Poverty

Patti Singer

Jerome Underwood of Action for a Better Community is co-chair of the steering committee for Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative. Provided by Jerome Underwood

Voters listening to candidates pitch their agendas on health care, education and economic development ought to asking a question and listening for an answer.

“What do you think about poverty?” is Jerome Underwood’s suggestion.

Underwood is co-chair of steering committee for the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, which in late January announced a six-point policy agenda that targets the root causes of poverty and is designed to promote self-sufficiency and address inequality.

Underwood, president and chief executive officer of Action for a Better Community, is urging voters to use that agenda as a litmus test for candidates.

“Here’s a poverty agenda,” Underwood said. “If you think poverty is important, which we hope you do, here’s a script to do something about that. I would be stunned if any one of them, regardless of whatever party, would not be interested in endorsing these things.”

The policy agenda calls for:

  • funding to improve child care access and quality through expanded and strengthened refundable tax credits for working families;
  • strengthen tax credits for working families;
  • support parole reform by providing earned time credits, bolstering due process and not sending people back to jail for most technical violations;
  • increase funding for public transportation;
  • end driver’s license suspension for unpaid fees and fines; and
  • improve access to housing.

The priorities were developed over months of meetings with representatives of the communities affected by poverty, government and nonprofits. Underwood said the list is not either/or, in the sense that RMAPI would trade some of what it wants to be assured of getting others. He said RMAPI is looking to achieve everything on the list.

Each point has a rationale for how it would address poverty. With child care, RMAPI said the cost in New York is not affordable for nearly all low- and middle-income families. RMAPI also said that fewer than 20 percent of low-income families eligible for child-care subsidies receive them.

Underwood said the tragic death of the toddler who last summer fell into the grease trap outside Tim Hortons on University Avenue as an example of the need to address child care. “That mom had to take him to work because she couldn’t find someone to watch him or day care. … Within a couple of months, there was legislation passed about grease traps. But the real reason she took him to work is she couldn’t find affordable day care. There’s no legislation and no funding for that.”

Underwood said RMAPI hasn’t discussed asking candidates sign a pledge of support for the policy agenda. “We want people who will be running for the seats that represent us – they are our representatives, not our leaders – to make them not only familiar but to advocate as well for who we represent. We represent the most vulnerable among us.”

Underwood said that some people don’t see poverty as an issue. “I’m not going to tell them care or not care. I need to know who cares and by default who doesn’t care so I can avoid those people and make sure they don’t have a negative impact on what we’re trying to do. Don’t stand in our way. We’re caring for the poor. Don’t stop us.”

Underwood said that a key to moving the agenda is to have an informed and active electorate.

“They should be asking the candidates, ‘What do you intend to do about poverty in Rochester and Monroe County?’” Underwood said that if the candidates mumble an answer, voters can follow up by telling candidates about the RMAPI agenda and pressing the issue.

Candidates aren’t the only ones on the spot.

“We have to get voter turnout up,” he said.

For more on the RMAPI 2020 policy agenda, go to

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