The blog of the Urban Institute
December 16, 2019

Tackling Systemic Barriers in Northeast Buffalo to Help Break Cycles of Poverty

December 16, 2019

A previous version of this post stated that the waiting list for housing vouchers in Buffalo is 54 weeks long. It is 54 months. (Corrected 1/10/20).


What would happen if service providers in a community worked together to combine services for kids and their parents and help break the cycle of poverty? A partnership in Northeast Buffalo has been working toward this since 2012. Through the Family-Centered Community Change (FCCC) initiative, service providers specializing in education, child care, housing, and job training aim to support families in poverty in a Northeast Buffalo neighborhood.

The partnership uses a “two-generation” approach—combining interventions for children and parents in the same household—to try to move the needle on poverty in the community. But the partnership, which works in a neighborhood previously called the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, quickly found that barriers beyond its control constrain its ability to support families.

Our new report explores how large, contextual challenges have hindered Buffalo’s—and the other two FCCC communities’—efforts to move families with low incomes toward greater economic independence and how community change efforts can address these obstacles.

Insufficient housing

A shortage of affordable housing—a problem that affects communities across the US—is a significant challenge for families in Buffalo. Only 50 affordable units are available for every 100 people who need them in Erie County. And for those with stable housing, rent and utility costs are increasing even as the quality of housing deteriorates.

Current policy approaches don’t do enough to address the housing shortage. The waiting list for housing voucher assistance in Buffalo is 54 months long. One service provider told us, “The formulas they use for the credits don’t give families enough. The tax credits don’t make housing here more affordable for families.”

And in a neighborhood where 65 percent of residents are black, redlining and other racist policies have historically denied them access to homeownership and quality housing. And now, the neighborhood is gentrifying, pushing out many long-term residents. One parent in Buffalo told us, “Oh, it’s a lot of people moving in and out, a lot of people. Five people just moved out this block in one month.” When families move out of the neighborhood, service providers can’t reach them.

Inadequate transportation

Families in this Buffalo neighborhood are more likely to work east of where they live. But without reliable transportation, getting to work or getting their kids to school is difficult. Like many predominantly black communities across the US, the Buffalo community is underserved by public transit. Transportation costs are high; it costs residents an estimated $10,000 a year to own a car and use public transportation.

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Transportation barriers also make it harder for service providers to reach families. One service provider said, “Transportation is the number one issue across the board. It doesn’t matter where you go and what you do, where the program is, who’s running the program, transportation for any family is going to be an issue.”

Stagnant wages

The partnership aims to help participating families escape poverty. But despite generally declining unemployment rates in the area, the most common jobs accessible to families pay low wages that have stagnated in recent years.

The top occupations in Buffalo are personal care aides, certified nursing assistants, and school bus drivers. Another common occupation is customer service representative, which pays less than $30,000 a year and requires no formal education credential for entry.

One group involved in the Buffalo partnership provides training for sustainable-wage careers. Many of these jobs require high school–level literacy and math skills that many parents don’t have, so the partnership works to help parents get GEDs and other certifications.

But even when people qualify for these higher-paying jobs, irregular hours and transportation barriers make them difficult to access for families with children. Parents in Buffalo told us that irregular job and school hours affect their ability to work and take care of their families.

How community change efforts can succeed despite these challenges

Flexibility in the face of structural challenges has enabled community change efforts like the one in the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood to succeed despite these significant headwinds. The partnership has improved the lives of families in Buffalo by building and funding two new child care centers, increasing the supply of free and subsidized child care available to families, strengthening family engagement in local schools, and helping adults further their education and earn certifications to help launch careers.

Research on two-gen strategies (PDF) has shown that helping people access higher-wage jobs takes a lot of time and resources – more than what this partnership has been able to offer so far. In the face of such obstacles, making progress on poverty in the community often becomes a secondary goal to providing support to families. Services, no matter how well coordinated, can’t erase structural barriers that have disadvantaged families experiencing poverty and communities of color for generations.

Community change efforts need to address the realities of structural racism that underlie many of these contextual challenges and that create insufficient housing, isolated and disinvested neighborhoods, and a lack of access to jobs that pay a living wage.

Improving economic outcomes for families depends on structural factors that are often beyond the control of community partnerships. But families served by these programs still persist in spite of these challenges. To best support families and their goals, community change partnerships must do the same.

Photo by Roberto Westbrook via Getty Images.

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