Area experts, elected officials and community members gathered Saturday, Oct. 5, to discuss poverty.
About 125 people attended “Living with Dignity and the Crisis of Poverty in Otsego and Delaware Counties,” held at the Foothills Performing Arts Center in Oneonta. According to a media release, the event aimed to “create public awareness and build advocacy for those whose lives are impacted by poverty … and define what poverty is, educate the community and foster discussion.”
Forum moderator and Gilbertsville resident Jeri Wachter said she was moved to action after executive producing the documentary, “Rural Poverty; the Other America,” by local filmmaker Joseph Stillman.
“The film was my first step and after realizing the gross inequity, I knew I need to get involved,” she said. “In the process of reaching out to the different agencies and advocacy groups and the people the film is meant to represent, it became astoundingly clear that there’s a real lack of awareness. It’s a crisis moment and the best impact we can have is in our backyard. The working poor is considered the fastest-growing class in the country, and Otsego and Delaware counties are a microcosm of that.”
Forum planning began, Wachter noted, this summer.
Featured speakers and panelists, Wachter said, were chosen based on their experience aiding the working poor. According to 2017 U.S. Census data, using information gathered through the 2015 American Community Survey, she noted, one in three Oneonta citizens is living below the poverty line.
Speakers included Dan Maskin of Opportunities for Otsego, Joyce St. George of Delaware County Community Action, Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig, the Reverend Cynthia Walton-Leavitt of Oneonta’s First United Presbyterian Church and others.
“The organizations that are charged with assisting people who are living under constant crisis have the knowledge and the level of oversight that the community can learn from,” Wachter said. “And we believe by bringing organizations and government together with the general public we can really offer a starting place to inform, enlighten and open doors for real conversation.”
Panelists discussed what Wachter called the “pillars of poverty,” including the cost of living and the minimum wage rate, housing, food insecurity and health care and the cost of health insurance.
Speakers also emphasized the pervasiveness of poverty locally and the need to better recognize the working poor.
“Poor means different things to different people,” Maskin said, “but whatever the point of view, let’s begin by judging the poor less and embracing them as our neighbors.”
“When you start thinking about, ‘Who is the working poor?’” St. George said, “you don’t have to look very far.”
Attendee and executive director of the Family Resource Network Michelle Zuk said she considered the forum “super-important.”
“I wish there were twice as many people here,” she said. “I see it with our staff and our clients — everybody is so stressed working full-time jobs and still can’t afford to take time out to do things like this, especially in rural communities.
“When I looked around, it seemed like a lot of different agencies and (members of) the faith communities are here,” Zuk continued.
“I’m here on a Saturday because I know our families and our staff can’t get here, so I speak for them,” she continued. “There needs to be some kind of shift. Our cafeteria aids, nursing home workers, headstart teachers, they need to make a wage they can live on and maybe somebody else needs to make a little less. We need to get our priorities adjusted and those people need to be valued.”
Wachter said she hopes the forum will inspire action.
“There are many ways that people can become involved,” she said, “and we’re asking all attendees to make a pledge, but that can be as simple as shoveling their neighbor’s walkway, buying someone’s heat for part of the winter or donating.
“I’m hoping every person will walk away having committed to some act that brings positive change to somebody’s life and with that, develops a better sense of empathy and a sense that, ‘I can make a difference, I can do this and I don’t need to be afraid to touch it,’” she continued. “We all need to develop a better sense of humanity and I’m hoping that by putting us all in a room together … people will find it in their hearts to take a task on.”