In a forum commemorating 50 years since Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the War On Poverty, county representatives gathered at Chautauqua Suites in Mayville on Friday morning to discuss the issue.
The staggering amount of children living below the federal poverty line, especially those in Chautauqua County, seemed to be the focus of the event, which was sponsored by Chautauqua Opportunities in partnership with Chautauqua County.
Of 134,190 county residents, 25,617 individuals live in poverty, including 31 percent of all children under the age of 18.
The event began with a presentation from Erin Hatton, author and assistant professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo.
"For those living below the poverty line, everyday life can be a seemingly insurmountable challenge," Hatton said. "These challenges of poverty are not rare. They are not the special circumstances of a small slice of the U.S. population."
Hatton went on to say that in 2012, 46.5 million Americans were living below the federal poverty line.
"In absolute terms, that is the largest number of people living in poverty in the 54 years since the U.S. Census Bureau began measuring it," she said. "Overall, 22 percent of children, and even more here in Chautauqua County, live below the poverty line, and 44 percent live below twice the poverty line."
Just like wealth, she added, poverty is highly concentrated and not evenly distributed.
Hatton concluded that the consequences for these children are severe and long lasting, as poor children are more likely to have bad health and suffer from chronic, long-term conditions.
"The poor are not the only ones affected by this," Hatton said. "In a society such as ours - a rich country with many poor people - the health and success of everyone is affected."
Social inequality affects national levels of happiness, mental illness, infant mortality, teen pregnancy, national rates of homicide and imprisonment and prospects for long-term economic growth, Hatton said.
"All of these things get worse as inequality rises," she added. "How can we change this state of affairs? Those questions are very difficult to answer."
County Executive Vince Horrigan spoke next.
"From my perspective, I think we need to come together as a community," he said. "I don't have all the answers, but I do know there are incredible agencies and people working very hard on this."
Horrigan continued by explaining an initiative described in his State of the County address in March.
The concept of the Thrive initiative is to bring together leaders from various sectors of the county representing government, not-for-profit, education, foundations, private investment and businesses in order to create innovative solutions for the community, Horrigan said.
"I've embraced this concept and we're developing it further," he said. "I'm asking, 'how can we use the principles of Thrive to bring people out of poverty?'"
Horrigan said the biggest portion of the county budget goes to Health and Human Services.
"I do know, in Chautauqua County the burden we have with children in poverty and the health issues we have are not something we can accept as a community," he added. "Government doesn't solve all these problems. It's a blend of family, not-for-profit organizations, our health care institutions, access to insurance and access to a decent job."
Lastly, Horrigan said he wants the community to share a vision and work together in order to begin reducing the county's poverty statistics.
Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Jamestown was also in attendance, and said that since the war on poverty began, the amount of government spending to address poverty in real dollars has increased about 375 percent from $178 billion to over $668 billion.
"If we are serious about upward mobility, we need to recognize that education is a key component," Goodell said. "Yet we do remarkably little in integrating our public dollars and our private sector efforts to address graduation."
Goodell said a high school graduate will earn $130,000 more than a high school drop out over the course of a lifetime.
"From a societal point of view, dropouts cost the government an estimated $200,000 per drop out in terms of reduced tax revenue and increased government expenses," he said.
Goodell said he has introduced legislation in the Assembly in order to increase school attendance, to which Roberta Keller, executive director of Chautauqua Opportunities Inc., requested a push at the state level for after school funding.
This resulted in a round of applause.
Keller also encouraged the audience to become educated about the way state representatives vote in Albany, as it is a fundamental way for voices to be heard.
She also said the reality of inequality exists in Chautauqua County.
"We have this political attitude toward the poor, however you want to look at it," she said. "I believe our hope and our dreams lie in public/private partnerships. We need to revisit our social structures and our services designed to help the working poor move to a better life."
Chautauqua Opportunities Inc. has been serving low-income population since 1965. The agency provides services in the areas of housing and community development, health services, early education, family services and the Child Care Council.