A third of the city of Utica lives below the poverty line, including 47 percent of its children. That is the starting point for the city's new poverty reduction initiative task force. At its first public forum last week, those involved with the project revealed that the problem is even worse for African American children, 72 percent of whom are affected.
Resident Patrick Johnson, who has worked on race issues in Utica for several years, blames the crisis on a lack of good job opportunities for minorities.
"Over the course of decades, particularly for black people and Latinos, that issue of institutional racism and the barriers -- we have hemorrhaged in a particular way and it’s been so compounded, now some of the symptoms unfold in so many ways," Johnson said. "So I'm hoping that if we are going to tackle this at its core, we have to look at institutional racism."
The forum held last week is one of five the city of Utica and United Way are conducting to better understand what barriers face those trying to escape poverty. But resident Eugene Bradley says these hearings are nothing more than a periodic exercise that does not result in meaningful change.
"This is smoke and mirrors," Bradley said. "This is what they do. This is not nothing new. They come out and pretend like they’re interested, but in actuality we’re already marginalized. So in order for them to get the money that they have -- to justify the money that they have, they want to do these focus groups, pretend our input matters, but at the end of the day we know it doesn’t."
Mayor Robert Palmieri, who attended the first forum, defended his administration's attempts to diversify the city government in a statement.
Last year we created the Access and Inclusion Committee to encourage and foster civic participation and facilitate dialogue among historically underrepresented groups in the City with a mission to overcome barriers to opportunity.
The Committee has been successful in trying to diversify City government.
Over the past few years, a large number of positions across several departments (outside of positions that legally require the City to hire strictly off a Civil Service list) have been filled by qualified minority candidates, all of whom are doing an outstanding job.
I have not only made diversifying the City workforce a priority, but the City’s Boards and Commissions. I have appointed qualified minority community leaders to the Municipal Housing Authority (MHA), Civil Service Commission, Golf Commission, Planning Board and Zoning Board.
Utica leaders involved in the project hope to publish a comprehensive report about the city's poverty and the ways to reduce it in April.
Syracuse, Oswego and Watertown are also among the 16 cities participating in New York state's poverty reduction initiative, a $25 million program to encourage public and private partnerships in reducing poverty.