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State Budget Cuts, in Addition to COVID-19, Could be Devastating to Anti-poverty Initiatives

Op-ed by Aqua Porter

The COVID-19 pandemic has wounded Rochester gravely, and the possibility of new state budget cuts would only sharpen the sting while putting our community’s most vulnerable at even greater risk.

Across Monroe County, a total of 375 of our neighbors have died and more than 15,000 have been infected, with the pandemic disproportionately affecting our Black and brown neighbors. Unemployment rates reached as high as 20 percent in the City of Rochester, countless businesses have been forced to close, and many of our families are struggling to pay for basic necessities.

The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) has surveyed community members many who are impacted by poverty and compiled findings in a Community Concerns Assessment Report. Among our survey respondents, more than one-third could not pay their rent or mortgage. Another one-quarter were worried about catching up with housing and other bills, and close to one out of every 14 families was facing eviction.

Amid these heartbreaking circumstances, we face the prospect of another crisis, one that we have the power to prevent. Governor Andrew Cuomo has raised the possibility of a 20 percent, permanent across-the-board cut that would be devastating locally.

RMAPI’s community partners, those working directly with people affected by poverty, anticipate disastrous effects if the state goes forward with these budget cuts. The Center for Youth Services, which provides services to youth facing homelessness, anticipated that budget cuts would have a “direct and chilling impact” on children between the ages of 12 and 18 who need emergency housing and support. This would mean either turning away children in their time of greatest need or shortening stays and putting them at high risk of sexual exploitation, unsafe housing practices, food insecurity, and difficulty participating in school programs.

The Monroe County Office for the Aging anticipated that these cuts would prevent 2,000 people from receiving the critical help they need to access food, connect to public assistance, and find appropriate public housing.

These crises are entirely preventable. Instead of exploring devastating budget cuts and making decisions between “bad and worse,” the state must find new ways to raise revenue through tax code changes. It is critical for the state to enact legislation that creates new revenue sources and that this new funding be utilized to support those facing the greatest needs.

These solutions include a short-term tax increase on the highest income tax brackets, our state’s millionaires and billionaires. This new revenue would help the state avoid the devastating budget cuts it is currently facing and maintain services for our lowest-income neighbors.

New revenue streams must be targeted to avoid hurting those already hit hard by the pandemic, with the greatest contributions coming from those who can most afford it. They must also be sufficient to meet the newly COVID-heightened needs of people affected by poverty and prioritized to ensure resources go to those in greatest need and most vulnerable. They must intentionally counteract past policies that have disproportionately harmed low-income communities and communities of color. The state must also focus on programs and policies that get resources to people as directly as possible.

The poverty that families across our region face and the racial inequalities that have plagued Rochester have been almost entirely a manmade construct. As our community works together to address decades of systemic racism and eradicate the systems that create and sustain poverty, we must do everything we can to avoid causing any further unnecessary harm to our most vulnerable neighbors.

Aqua Porter is the executive director of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty initiative. She leads a collaborative of Rochester institutions as they participate in changing policies and practices that have helped perpetuate poverty.

(The views expressed on our opinion pages are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or viewpoint of the Minority Reporter.)