Poverty In Rochester: The Percentage Problem

We have the fifth highest poverty rate in the nation. We have the highest rate of extreme poverty for a city of our size. And according to an alarming 2015 report from Rochester Area Community Foundation and ACT Rochester, the local poverty rate is actually increasing. It now stands at 32.9%.

Translation: One third of the people in our city struggle to survive every day.

Here’s another tragic twist to the story. More than 50% of children in Rochester live in poverty. In fact, only three other metropolitan areas—Detroit, Cleveland and Dayton—have higher rates of child poverty.

But something’s missing in this grim statistical picture…

People versus percentages

When we talk about poverty in terms of percentages, it turns human suffering into an abstraction. It obscures the true dimensions of the problem. It overlooks the fact that we are talking about individual human lives.

Take that 50-plus percent child poverty rate. What does that really mean? According to the report mentioned above, more than 25,000 children live in poverty in our city.

Think about it. 25,000 children facing all of the problems that come with poverty every day!

If poor children had their own community inside our city, it would be bigger than Cortland, Lockport, Oswego or Plattsburgh. And close in size to Elmira and Saratoga Springs.

25,000 poor children struggling to survive inside our city limits


We see some of these children every day. We know that many of them live in unthinkable conditions of neglect, violence and abuse. And we try to help them anyway we can.

We talk to their teachers and principals. We try to place them in private schools. We advocate for them and counsel them and give them food, clothing, school supplies, attention, and love.

So many of the children who come to The House of Mercy are so starved for kindness and affection.

But there are too many children who need unceasing assistance. The problems that come with poverty are so powerful and unrelenting. And the simple, tragic fact is this: We sometimes fail to save them.

They get lost in school. They fall behind. They experience one failure after another. They lose hope. They drop out, and end up on the streets, a fatal decision that too often leads to drugs, prostitution, violence, imprisonment and early death.

So when a young boy or girl walks through the door of the House of Mercy, you don’t think about poverty in terms of percentages. You worry about the chaotic forces at work that will make it so hard for this sweet child standing in front of you to survive.

Think about human faces, not mathematical figures.

So please remember this when you think about poverty in our community. The cold, clinical percentages hide the fact that there are thousands and thousands of children caught up in a whirlwind that is not of their own making.

Think of a child standing in front of you, holding out a hand, with 25,000 other children lined up behind.

Think about the expressions on their faces. Think about their small, delicate hands. Think about their vulnerability. Think about the fact that they deserve better.

Then think about the children you love: What would happen to them if they lived in a hopeless world? Would you want to reach out a hand to help them? Would you want your neighbors to do the same?

Every day poverty in our community is destroying the lives of our children. But at The House of Mercy, we will continue to do what we can to help them. And we will never ever give up.

That’s a hallmark of our mission.

After all, we’re the one place in Rochester that never closes its doors on people in need.