Published June 28, 2021
The organizations and agencies that form the “safety net” for those living in poverty in the Buffalo Niagara region target their efforts with data and insights thanks to a new online resource developed by the UB Regional Institute.
The new tool, called Numbers in Need and available at NumbersInNeed.org, provides community leaders, human service providers, and foundations across Erie and Niagara counties with a comprehensive analysis of poverty in 12 communities where low-income levels are most concentrated.
This comprehensive analysis provides keen insights on regional and community trends in poverty and its distribution across vulnerable populations, including older adults, children, single-parent households, and immigrants and refugees. Researchers also examined contributing factors to poverty, such as access to human services, educational attainment, the presence of large employers, neighborhood safety, and the availability of higher-paying jobs, affordable housing, and transportation to jobs and services.
The UB Regional Institute (UBRI), a research center within the School of Architecture and Planning, developed the tool in partnership with The John R. Oishei Foundation to better guide service provision and resource allocation across the region’s safety net. The origins of the project date back to 2009, when the Oishei Foundation formed its Mobile Safety-Net Team in response to the “Great Recession.” Between 2012 and 2014, UBRI partnered with the Mobile Safety-Net Team to complete reports in 12 communities that assessed how the recession impacted these communities. This work supported grant writing, partnership building, priority setting, and understanding community strengths, needs, and challenges in the years that followed.
Drawing upon this work, Numbers in Need updates and expands upon these community reports and increases access to findings by putting everything online. Numbers in Need strengthen human and social services through research-informed practices, coalition-building among service providers, and data-informed decision-making.
According to Sharon Entress, senior policy associate at UBRI and project lead on the effort: “Numbers in Need offers a comprehensive look at the most pressing factors relating to poverty and economic vulnerability…and sheds light on solutions for workforce development and employment, housing, transportation, youth programs, capacity building, provider collaborations and more. Having this resource available because of the Oishei Foundation’s commitment to data-driven decision-making puts our region ahead of the curve in dealing with the consequences of COVID-19, which has pushed more residents into unemployment and challenged service providers in unprecedented ways.”
Lawrence H. Cook II, is senior vice president of The John R. Oishei Foundation, which also serves as a critical part of the region’s safety net. He said the data-driven nature of the project and the work of UBRI “has helped to bring a sense of trust and confidence to the work that was being done.” Numbers in Need also allows service providers the ability to achieve greater leverage and impact through metrics and data-based insights.
Numbers in Need focuses on 12 communities in the Buffalo Niagara region that together hold more than half of the region’s residents living at or below the poverty line. Representing a mix of rural, urban and suburban communities, the selected study areas are Akron-Newstead, Buffalo (West and East sides of the city), Cheektowaga, Lackawanna, Lockport, Newfane, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda/City of Tonawanda, Springville-Concord, Town of Tonawanda, and West Seneca.
According to the report, nearly 338,000 people live in or near poverty in the region, representing about one-third of the regional population. The level has remained consistent despite the region’s economic growth before the pandemic, representing a segment of the community that had been economically “left behind.” The pandemic is expected to push these numbers up, particularly for communities of color.
Numbers in Need also reveals concentrated poverty among older adults, children, and immigrants. More than 40 percent of those aged 75 and older – about 35,700 seniors – live in or near poverty. At the other end of the age spectrum, 42 percent of children – or nearly 100,000 – are in the exact grip of poverty. More than two in three immigrants in the region are below the poverty line, with communications barriers highlighted as a barrier to economic progress amongst this population.
Robert G. Shibley, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, says Numbers in Need will drive measurable progress on poverty. “Numbers in Need informs a complex and systemic challenge facing far too many members of our community, and disproportionately affecting people of color, older adults and immigrants. The dedicated leadership of The John R. Oishei Foundation combined with the policy expertise of the UB Regional Institute has generated a powerful new resource for our community that will guide action toward economic security for all in Buffalo Niagara.”
According to UBRI’s analysis, while poverty is most concentrated in urban areas, it is spreading into rural and suburban areas where access to jobs and services can be limited. The report notes that critical investments are needed to increase access to education and training, reduce housing cost burdens, and provide flexible transportation options.
Entress says that closer alignment of employment training with industry needs is one strategy for reducing poverty. “More individuals would have access to good-paying jobs with career pathways if they had the skills and training that hiring employers seek, and if the barriers they face to work and training were reduced.”
The complexity of the populations and issues being explored required an intensive study framework, including nearly 2,600 surveys, face-to-face interviews, and focus group conversations with service providers and residents.
Entress said these personal-touch interactions helped the research team humanize the numbers and gather data and information that was not otherwise available. For instance, insights from residents and providers – documented through narrative snapshots and population profiles – explore urgent household needs, barriers to employment, and gaps in services.
Findings were rolled out to the communities last fall through meetings, video presentations, and email. With the framework of Numbers in Need in place, UBRI will continue to update data and analyses.
The comprehensive nature of Numbers in Need, according to Entress, prepares the region to act upon new stressors faced by vulnerable populations in the region, including the COVID-19 pandemic. It also can serve as a model for data-driven action on poverty at the community level across the region and beyond.
Among her recommendations is the creation of safe spaces for LGBT residents and promoting community engagement and social support for this aging population. Through her dissertation, she also highlights the need for broader efforts in community outreach programs, and opportunities to address in-equity in care across the range of senior facilities, from independent to assisted living.