CSEA, community members discuss hunger, poverty in Northern New York

Food For Thought Forum photo

CSEA Local 845 member Heather Wenzel from the St. Lawrence County DSS, right, talks about the growing problems of hunger and poverty in St. Lawrence County at the Food For Thought forum CSEA hosted recently at SUNY Potsdam. Also pictured, left to right, are: CSEA Local 845 activist Mark Patterson, who facilitated the event, Dr. Heather Sullivan-Catlin, Professor of Sociology at SUNY Potsdam; Greg Hart, Regional Director of the Workforce Development Institute (WDI); and Daisy Cox, Executive Director of the Potsdam Neighborhood Center.


POTSDAM – In many parts of New York state, especially rural northern New York, communities are in crisis over the growing concerns of hunger, poverty, unemployment and homelessness.

These issues are weakening communities and can only start to be addressed when everyone involved works together to find solutions.

That’s the message delivered to attendees of the recent “Food For Thought” community forum CSEA sponsored at SUNY Potsdam as part of its Strong Communities Work initiative. Community members heard from area experts on those issues, including SUNY Potsdam Sociology Professor Dr. Heather Sullivan-Caitlin, Potsdam Neighborhood Center Director Daisy Cox, the Workforce Development Institute’s North Country Regional Director Greg Hart and St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services Medical Services Supervisor Heather Wenzel, who is also a CSEA St. Lawrence County Local member. CSEA Village of Massena Department of Public Works Unit President Mark Patterson moderated the discussion.

All the speakers acknowledged that the problems were real and growing.

“The daily struggles that our clients face can be overwhelming,” Wenzel said. “The systems they must navigate continue to grow more complicated and accessing services becomes increasingly difficult. And the number of individuals that apply for and receive assistance continues to grow in our county. We know that the percentage of individuals living in poverty in St. Lawrence County is higher than the national average. We know the unemployment numbers are high, as well.”

Wenzel also said poverty often runs across generations.

“The majority of individuals that receive long term benefits from the Department of Social Services have been raised in generational poverty, which means their family has been in poverty for at least two generations,” she said. “Job prospects and opportunities to move to the middle class are bleak for these families.”

Sullivan-Catlin said a study she conducted a few years ago in St. Lawrence County found the startling statistic that 1 in 4 children in the county was identified as “food insecure,” not having reliable access to safe, healthy foods. She blamed low wages and income inequality as key factors leading to poverty and hunger.

“The bottom line addressing poverty is wages. We do not have a living wage,” Sullivan-Catlin said. “Our poverty rate and our unemployment rate, as high they are, are actually under-counts of the reality.”

She noted that the formula to calculate poverty rates was based on numbers developed in the 1950s, and that unemployment rates didn’t account for those who had given up searching for work or who were underemployed.

Hart, the expert on employment, added that there was a “skills gap” that kept many workers from filling available jobs, either not having the technical expertise or “soft skills” that employers are seeking.

Cox, who runs a food pantry in Potsdam, said her pantry was one of 34 serving families in St. Lawrence County, and that she sees the impact of poverty every day in the faces of those who feel stuck in their situations.

“People are really losing hope, and when you lose hope you lose a lot,” Cox said. “You lose the drive to get up in the morning, you lose the drive to put on clothes and go to the grocery store. And when adults lose hope, they’re role modeling that to their children.”

When asked about solutions, Sullivan-Catlin noted that supporting unions was a big part of attacking the income inequality that has kept wages stagnant for low and middle-income workers. She noted the inverse relationship between the decline of unions and the increase in income inequality.

Wenzel said that for any solutions to be effective, they must include those actually facing the problems.

“I believe that genuine discourse about poverty, hunger, and homelessness cannot be truly effective, and cannot be a catalyst for change without involving those who live in poverty,” she said.

CSEA Central Region President Colleen Wheaton wrapped up the event by noting that as community members, everyone has a shared responsibility to get involved and be part of the solution.

“These problems impact us all, and we can only make things better if we all work cooperatively to come up with solutions,” she said. “We need to keep this discussion going if we want to lessen these concerns.”

— Mark M. Kotzin