Friday, July 13, 2018

Small town America: Big time poverty

There is a food pantry at Zion Lutheran Church in Gasport that is open once per month. On any given distribution day 20 to 35 families (encompassing 80 to 130 people) use the service. That’s a substantial number, given how small Gasport is. The Census Bureau says the population within the hamlet proper is just over 1,200 people. That means, if all those individuals hail from the immediate area, 7 to 11 percent of area residents rely on the charity to get by.   

If you tell those numbers to anyone, and specifically Gasportians, it’s met with amazement. They’ll claim that Gasport doesn’t look like it’s saddled with poverty and that they don’t really know anyone in need.

That’s the problem with poverty. It sneaks up on you. It often doesn’t look like it should and appears in places you’d least expect.

That’s especially the case in rural and small town America.

We all know the inner-cities are impoverished. It grabs the attention of the press, academia, and policymakers. And, it grabs of disproportionate amount of money and energy in the war on poverty.

Rural poverty, on the other hand, remains under the radar. You almost never hear about it on the nightly news and it’s even rarer yet to hear an elected official cast a spotlight on it. 

Maybe it’s because it’s less noticeable than it is in the big city. Rural poverty is less centralized and more spread-out through a given community with low-income families living next door to middle or high income folks. You don’t get that in cities where social classes tend to be segregated.

Maybe it’s because it’s fly-over country. The population centers, for better or worse, dictate thought and public policy throughout America. Everything outside of the likes of Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami is meaningless to powerbrokers. We see that here in the Empire State in spades – New York City lawmakers determine what happens across the state, much to the detriment of upstate.

Regardless of why it’s ignored, it’s a problem nonetheless and, as many will find surprising, one greater than that of the cities.

In urban locales, 13 percent of the population is considered impoverished while 16 percent of rural and small town Americans are.  

That accounts for 8 million Americans living below the poverty line in towns identical to those where this newspaper is circulated.

Worse yet, of those 8 million people, a majority of them are children. While you may not know their circumstances in the home, it’s more than likely you know many of those kids. They could be your neighbors.  

As the president of the board of the local Boy Scout council which serves eastern Niagara and the GLOW counties, I tell people all the time that we not a social club for boys, but rather a social service organization. Our duty is to deliver education and development to children, in need and out of need, to help them rise above any obstacles in their lives and prepare them for careers and parenting.

When one looks at how the youth served by our council are besieged by poverty, you’ll understand my social service designation.

In Medina, 12 percent of the population under the age of 18 lives below the poverty line while in Batavia that rate is 29 percent. In Geneseo it’s 31 percent and in Albion it’s 37 percent.

Or, on a more macro scale, consider the poverty rate for minors in each of the counties under our jurisdiction: Wyoming (17 percent), Niagara (18 percent), Livingston (19 percent), Genesee (20 percent), and Orleans (25 percent).

Basically, 1-out-of-every-5 or 1-out-of-every-4 kids are impoverished in this region. 

That’s why our local school districts have so many free or discounted breakfast and lunch programs. In order to best utilize the wonderful public resources that our public schools offer, the children there need to be nourished or it’s all for naught.

That’s why food pantries are tested to their limits. 35 families at Gasport’s food pantry? That’s a lot. But it pales in comparison to the mobile food pantry that used to be in Medina – 200 to 300 families used to line up at a time. It’s no wonder so many pantries can’t keep up.

That’s why Medicaid and other public health programs over so heavily utilized – and, in turn, heavily-taxed – in upstate New York. Medicaid is a burden on our property and sales taxes because so many families are forced to utilize the program.

Most people wouldn’t expect such abject poverty in God’s Country. I don’t care if they’re visiting from a suburb or living right here in the epicenter. The unparalleled beauty of the fields, forests, and hills seem to do a fine job in hiding the fact that are some truly ugly circumstances plaguing our rural communities and economies.

It’s time we brought this out of hiding and did our best as a people to initiate the policies, locally and nationally, to bring opportunity and prosperity to those who have been deprived of hope for far too long.

From the 16 July 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Thursday, July 12, 2018

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Those aren’t ticks in your home – they’re pseudoscorpions

With all the press that has been cast upon ticks, especially with Western New York being a hotbed for those that carry Lyme disease, many people have been diligent about checking their bodies and clothes for the little parasites after having spent time outdoors.

Many of those souls have been surprised to find what they believe are ticks in their home which leads to all sorts of fear and paranoia – “If I brought these ticks into my home on my clothes, they could be anywhere!”

Before getting too frightened and then heading off to the doctor for unnecessary bloodwork to test for Lyme, give the little critter a closer look.

The little tick-like arachnids in your home might not be ticks, they are more than likely pseudoscorpoins.

Like the name implies, they aren’t scorpions, but rather fake scorpions. If you looked at them closely you’ll notice that at the end of their very long front legs (even longer than the front legs of ticks) are tell-tale club-like pincers, much like those sported by true scorpions.

Pseudoscorpions lack the tail and stinger that scorpions have and their bodies are very small, averaging about 3 millimeters in length, and roundish, which accounts for the confusion with ticks. It’s any easy mistake for anyone to make – one could say that if a tick and a scorpion had a baby it would look like a pseudoscorpion.

They are relatively common, living in approximately one of every five homes. These long-lived mini-monsters, which can thrive up to 3 years, tend to go overlooked due to their small size and their preferred hiding area: Around old books.

Booklice and dust mites frequent old books because they feast on the starch-based glues that was used to bind them. The pseudoscorpions eat those small critters, catching them in their oversized claws then secreting a digestive fluid into them which allows the scorpion to suck their insides out.

Pseudoscorpions are also frequently found in sinks and bathtubs, which leads many people to believe that when they took a shower a tick fell off of them. They show up there because, once again, that’s where they feed. The humidity around showers attracts small invertebrates that feast on mildew, creatures so small you almost never see them – that’s what the pseudoscorpions feast on.

The “book scorpions” can be found almost anywhere in your home, even a long distance away from books and bath because they are frequent fliers. They don’t have wings, but they’ll occasionally latch on to a house fly to either try to eat the much bigger creature or to consume the even smaller animals hiding in the fly’s hairs. This form of mass transit allows them to spread their range with ease.

Pseudoscorpions not only look weird, but they have a weird mating behavior. The male will prepare an area of a flat surface, putting effort into making it free of fuzz and dirt. He then dumps his sperm onto that surface and encourages the female to walk over it and in turn pick up the sperm. To make her do that, he displays his pincers as a show of strength then he proceeds to dance to coerce her into joining him. This rather unusual and elaborate behavior makes the mating ritual sometimes go on for almost an hour.

Despite their tick-like appearance, nasty looking claws, and strange sexual behaviors, pseudoscorpions pose no threat to humans. Many entomologists and extension offices encourage you to not kill them and let them live in your home because they are doing you a favor and killing pests that might be eating your books and giving you allergies.

So, the next time you think you’ve found a tick in your house, don’t fear for your life. Give it a closer look – it’s probably a pseudoscorpion that you’ve been sharing your home with.   

+Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 12 July 2018 All WNY News

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Orleans County: Setting the standard for acceptance

Earlier this year, I attended a charity concert in Medina organized by my good friend Bilal Huzair and his lovely family. It was an interesting and eclectic evening to say the least: The celebration began with country-western music which was followed by Pakistani music and then closed with a nice blend of East and West cultures, with songs sung in English, Hindi and Spanish.

I couldn’t help but be enamored by the brotherhood and sisterhood of a shared humanity that night. Everyone was having fun, interacting, and championing a common cause (the fight against hunger here in our region), despite all of their differences – WASPs, Hispanics, Muslims, African-Americans and Mennonites were all equals, all friends.

Realize though, that this shared loved didn’t begin or end there at the Medina Theatre. As my daughter and I sat there entertained and educated, I had a recurring thought: “My goodness, this is what Orleans County is all about”.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a community where diversity and acceptance are paired so well.

Oh, you’ll find many cities, large and small, that will be a little more diverse, but, for the most part, they’re segregated, whether that’s intentional or not. Think of any given metropolis with its clearly defined neighborhoods – you’ve got your “Chinatown” and “Little Italy” or the blacks live here while the whites live there routine. Other than the occasional passing-through to indulge in a festival or an ethnic experience, you rarely see races and creeds interacting in cities.  

That’s not the case along the south shore of Lake Ontario.

Look at these examples of many:

Huzair, his Muslim peers, and their friends at the World Life Institute have been incredibly generous to the community, providing English-as-a-second-language classes to local migrant workers and their families; hosting Project Life, where children from war-torn countries spend summers with local host families; and running a mobile food pantry that served 300 families at a time.

One-time farm workers Leonel Rosario and his family have been welcomed with open arms by local residents, their impeccable Mexican restaurant, Mariachi De Oro, becoming so popular that it has expanded 3 times in its first 7 years and has become something of a tourism destination in itself. The Rosarios also opened up a retail store – Monte Alban – and have given of themselves to Orleans County and its people.

A few years ago, Amish farmer Marcus Miller lost the milking parlor at his dairy farm in Ridgeway to a fire. Once the ashes cooled, dozens of his friends, be they Amish, Catholics or competing farmers from his neighborhood, were there with him to help rebuild that complex, laboring in single-digit temperatures.  

His Amish friends have also created furniture, window, and roof businesses, as well as the super-popular Miller’s Bulk Food and Bakery on Route 104, that are all successful thanks to their attention to their customers and those customers’ appreciation for them, despite having a lifestyle and religious path so different than theirs.

Driving through sleepy Orleans County, you might not, at first glance, realize how diverse these towns are. But they are – according to the Census Bureau, Orleans County is 86% white, 5% Latino, 7% African-American. 3.5% of county residents were foreign born.

Those numbers aren’t far off the numbers of Niagara County, which has to its benefit three cities, which, as a general rule, tend to add to the diversity rolls.

So, why doesn’t Orleans County seem like other places? Why don’t diverse populations catch your attention as they do when you drive through Niagara Falls, Lockport or Buffalo?    

It’s because diversity has not become an oddity or a wedge as it has elsewhere – it’s not used as a means to divide people but rather as a way to bring them together. You have families of different colors and religions doing business with one another, living next door to one another, standing in the trenches together serving those in need, and creating friendships that know no boundaries. Acceptance is something that many if not most diverse communities lack, but Orleans County possesses in spades.  

As America continues to be grossly divided -- and even embarrassingly ugly -- along lines of color, religion, education, income, and politics, it would behoove policymakers and university think tanks from across this country to spend some quality time in Medina, Albion, and Lyndonville. Just why does acceptance work so well here and how can we make it work elsewhere? We could be the United States again if others took the time to learn from the humble and loving people of Orleans County.        

From the 09 July 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, June 29, 2018

Never overlook vocational training

Be it through the Boy Scouts or numerous school tours at the factory, conversations that I regularly have with high schoolers center on the job market. They can’t help but wonder what might be the best path of study and, in turn, what sort of career should they prepare for to ensure a comfortable adulthood.

For years, I have been suggesting that many should go after a career that is not predicated on a college degree. Economic and employment trends both show immediate and long-term needs for skilled tradesman. A teenager would be far better off by abandoning the college preparatory, general education tract in high school and, instead, entering BOCES and/or preparing for trade school after graduation.

It’s an outcome of supply and demand; there’s just too much competition for a finite number of job openings that require college degrees to warrant the mindset that everyone needs a diploma.

This wasn’t always the case. Just a generation or two ago, the college-educated were at a premium and, accordingly, could fetch a premium. Following World War II, only 5 percent of Americans could claim a college degree. In 1970, only 26 percent of the middle class workforce had received any education beyond the twelfth grade. Now, more than 3 in 10 have a degree, while 70 percent of young Americans enter college within 2 years of their high school graduation.

Due to this glut of educated workers, employers either can’t match candidates to jobs for which they became enlightened or they can dole-out lower wages for college graduates.

Newspapers have been chock full of reports of college graduates having to accept what they perceive to be menial jobs since businesses in their career field aren’t hiring while many more have had to move back into their family’s homes to make ends meet, inspiring the title of the “Boomerang Generation”. Roughly half of college graduates are working jobs that don't require a degree while 34 percent of adults aged 18 to 34 live with their parents.

It doesn’t help that they leave college with an average of $30,000 in bills. Without the job opportunities to make good on the alleged potential they have, they are saddled with the burdensome debt for a while, which is why total college debt in America exceeds $1.2 trillion.

While the reality of the economy paints a grim picture for young college-educated Americans, that same economy paints a rosy picture for their peers who instead opted for tax-payer funded in high school or paid a nominal fee to a trade school.

Teens and young adults who develop vocational skills see immediate rewards, long-term gain, and stability because they are marketable, in demand, and in relatively low supply.    

A perfect example is machinists. Numerous studies have found that in upwards of 400,000 manufacturing jobs across the United States remain unfilled due to the lack of qualified candidates. As for being “qualified”, a college degree doesn’t cut it – but a certificate from a trade school does. High school seniors who took machining are guaranteed a job immediately upon graduation and, in most cases, were claimed by area machine shops and factories in their junior year. A young machinist, fresh out of high school, could command a starting pay in the range of $15 to $20 per hour throughout upstate New York, more if he left the area.

Those who pursue nursing, either in high school or afterwards, also face a welcoming job market. Due to the aging Baby Boomer population and the stress it places on the health industry, there will be a nursing shortage over the next decade and beyond when demand is expected to outstrip supply. Licensed Practical Nurses earn an average of $42,400. Those wages are expected to rise with demand. Plus, the role of LPN is often used as a stepping stone for those looking to become Registered Nurses who bring in an average salary of $69,000.

We can’t forget truck drivers, either. Someone who invests $2,500 to $4,000 into a CDL will find himself desirable: there are literally hundreds of thousands of openings for drivers nationally and that mismatch of supply versus demand will be in favor of the licensed drivers for the long haul as a good portion of truck drivers are entering their retirement years.  Because of that, the starting salary for truck drivers ranges from $38,000 for local work to $45,000 for over-the-road haulers. Experienced long-distance drivers net $75,000 and many top out at $100,000.

It’s not surprising that trade certificates earn just as much as – and, in most cases, even more than – college diplomas. The opportunity is there. You just have to take advantage of it. We should encourage our kids to do just that.

From the 02 July 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News