Chautauqua County - and the United States as a whole - find ourselves fighting a losing battle 50 years after the start of the federal government's war on poverty.
In 1969, five years after President Lyndon B. Johnson's call for a war on poverty, 8.5 percent of the 37,991 families and 11.8 percent of the overall population in Chautauqua County lived in poverty, according to an October 1973 document titled "Background for the Seventies Chautauqua County" prepared by the county Planning Board and Department of Planning.
Johnson's legislation created many of the public assistance programs we deal with today, including Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps. Those programs help thousands of Chautauqua County residents each year - but the war certainly has not been won. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics in the 2008-2012 American Community Survey five-year estimates, 13.9 percent of the county's 34,342 families and 19.1 percent of the county's overall population live in poverty.
Part of the county's poverty problem is the lack of good paying jobs that force people to either leave the area entirely or stay and work at jobs that don't meet their needs. That leads to an inability to meet a family's financial obligations, home foreclosures and an increase in the number of people who end up needing financial assistance. To make matters worse, many fear the very programs designed to help the poor have instead created a cycle of poverty and dependency that is nearly impossible to break.
Poverty also plays a role in the county's continued poor rankings in surveys that measure community health.
"Poverty is the single largest identifiable factor preventing the attainment of many of the Healthy People 2010 objectives," states the Chautauqua County Health Department's 2013-17 Community Health Survey. "Obesity, high teen pregnancy, low birth rates and lack of access to health care are a few of the Healthy People 2010 indicators that are directly related to poverty in Chautauqua County. The clear relationship between poverty and health risks suggest that heavy emphasis be placed on the health needs of low-income families, particularly female-headed households with children."
The poor health of county residents drive up the costs of public assistance programs related to health care. The end result is bad for all involved. The poor remain poor. Public assistance costs skyrocket and threaten to bankrupt the system. Despite the best efforts of many, the system is broken with no viable solutions in sight.
Those interested in being part of the discussion can attend a forum hosted by Chautauqua Opportunities Inc. at 9 a.m. Friday at the Chautauqua Suites, 215 W. Lake Road, Mayville. COI's event includes a presentation of the sociological perspective of poverty today along with a panel discussion including Roberta Keller, COI executive director; County Executive Vince Horrigan, Christine Schuyler, county social services and public health commissioner, and state Assemblyman Andy Goodell. The panel will present their visions for an avenue toward economic security for Chautauqua County residents. The forum is free and open to the public.
Chautauqua County has lost ground despite spending billions to help the poor, and something obviously must change. Friday's forum seems like as good a place to start as any.