Why the Poor in Upstate Cities find it Difficult to get Good Jobs

With almost one third of upstate city residents and one half of upstate city families with children under 18 living in poverty, compared with less than 10% of suburban residents and families, it is helpful to understand how their demographic, social and educational characteristics, and how they differ from more affluent residents of the counties surrounding them.  The data shows that in important ways, the poor living in upstate cities possess characteristics that make it difficult for them to compete effectively for good jobs.


With the exception of Utica, Troy and Schenectady, most upstate city residents who live in poverty identified as members of a minority group in the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey. Because the residents of communities outside central cities within the county containing the city are overwhelmingly white, it is not surprising that almost 70% to 90% of suburban residents whose income is below the poverty line are white, (not Hispanic or Latino).

• People identifying as “black” or “African American” are the largest group of those in poverty living in Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse.

• In Utica, Troy and Schenectady the largest group of those in poverty identified as “White, not Hispanic or Latino.”

• Black or African American residents ranged from 25% to 50% of the population with incomes below poverty level.

• Hispanics are the third largest group in poverty in upstate central cities, ranging from 10% to 20% of the population with incomes below the poverty line in most cases.

percent of residents poverty by race

But, when we look at the percentage of people of each race or ethnicity whose income is below poverty level, the picture differs. The data shows that both in upstate cities and in the counties surrounding them, poverty among blacks or African American and Hispanics or Latinos is generally two to three times higher than it is for whites, who are not Hispanic or Latino.  More than half of people who identify as black or African American live in poverty in most upstate cities, while nearly half of Latinos and Hispanics are poor.  In most cases, the percentage of minority group members living in poverty in suburbs is much lower – about 20% in many cases. For those who identify as white, not Hispanic or Latino, the percentages of people living in poverty are lower – around 20% in cities, and about 5% in suburbs.percent of group poverty by race


Residents of upstate cities whose incomes are below the poverty level are more than twice as likely to have only a high school education or less than residents living outside the city who are not below the poverty level.

• Overall, 60% or more of residents of upstate cities have a high school diploma or less, while 30% to 40% of residents whose incomes are above the poverty level, living outside central cities, have high school diplomas or less.

• The most significant educational difference between upstate central city residents living below the poverty level and residents outside cities whose incomes are above poverty is the percentage of residents who had not completed high school.

• Outside all of the upstate central cities, less than 8% of residents had not completed high school, while in central cities, 25% to nearly 40% (in Utica) of residents had not graduated.

education poverty city suburb

Family Structure

One of the strongest differences between people in poverty in and not in poverty is found in family structure.
• Outside central cities, 80% to 85% of families whose incomes were above the poverty level were married.
• For those whose incomes were below the poverty level outside central cities, 60% to 70% had single adult householders.
• In central cities, 55% to 70% of families whose incomes were above the poverty level were married.
• In contrast, among those whose incomes were below the poverty level living in central cities, between 65% and 90% of families had a single adult householder.

Family structure poverty city suburb

For families with children, the differences in family structure between people in poverty and those living above the poverty line is even more striking:

single parent families below poverty

• Sixty five to 75% of all families in central cities, with incomes below poverty level, had single adult householders with children below 18 years old.

• Most families in poverty with children below 18 years old (85%) were headed by unmarried householders were headed by women.

For families with children living above the poverty line, the picture is much different – relatively few are headed by single parents:

single parent families above poverty

• Single parents were much less likely to head families with children under 18, living above the poverty line. In the suburbs, less than 10% of these families were headed by single parents, while 16% to 25% of families with children under 18 having incomes above the poverty line were headed by single parents.

• Most single parent families living above the poverty line (78%) were headed by women.

Work Experience

In upstate central cities, less than half of residents sixteen years old or older in poverty worked part-time, or full time in the past twelve months, compared to almost 70% of those living outside central cities and not in poverty.
• Less than 10% of residents of central cities who lived in poverty worked full-time, compared with 45% to 50% of those living outside central cities.
• Over half of upstate city residents whose incomes were below the poverty level did not work, compared with about 30%, on average, for those not in poverty and living outside cities.

work experience poverty


The high percentages of minority group members, people with low levels of educational attainment, single parent families, and part-time or no work experience are all significant barriers that have contributed to the high poverty levels found in upstate central cities.

Central cities, for more than a century, have been home to the least well off Americans. Exposes of tenement life in the late 19th century described conditions in the slums of American cities. At the same time, through the first half of the 20th Century, cities were diverse. Most urban residents at that time lived within the borders of central cities, so while poverty was present, so was wealth. With the end of the Second World War, the beginnings of suburbanization became evident. Young families seeking to raise families in environments with detached housing and some open space, found opportunities in the new tract developments that sprang up. Since automobile ownership was widespread at the time, the new suburban residents had relatively easy access to jobs located in the central cities.

The growth of suburban communities after the mid-20th century has not abated. At the same time, the population of central cities in many places has continued to decline. For example, Syracuse’s population peaked in 1950 at 221,000. In 2010, the city’s population had declined to 145,000. In 1950, the Syracuse metropolitan area had 465,000 residents, increasing to 663,000 in 2010. The city of Rochester declined from 332,000 to 211,000 in the same period, while the Rochester metropolitan area grew from 488,000 to 1,054,000.

Poverty is a complex problem. Our economy has failed in recent years to produce enough jobs to meet the supply of low skilled workers, many of whom are concentrated in central cities. This problem is largely a result of two major long term trends. First, globalization has allowed more workers throughout the world to compete for manufacturing jobs that were monopolized in the past by advanced industrial economies, like the United States. While globalization has undoubtedly been beneficial in reducing poverty globally, it has had a significant cost for low skilled American workers who, in the past, had greater opportunity to hold a reasonably well paying manufacturing job.

The second trend is the result of the development of information technology and automation. Just as low skilled, comparatively low paid, foreign labor has made it more difficult for low skilled workers in the United States to find well paid manufacturing jobs, technology and automation have reduced their availability.

An additional factor that has contributed to the employment difficulties facing low skilled workers is the lingering effect of the severe recession of 2008. While the official unemployment rate has declined to near pre-recession levels, the labor participation rate has not recovered.

These trends have contributed to the increasing income inequality in our society, as low skilled workers have relatively high levels of unemployment, and low wage levels for many of those who find work.

Though poverty is persistent, evidence based approaches have been successful in reducing poverty levels both in the United States and outside it. These approaches typically have specific goals, good measures of need and success, and a commitment from political leaders to follow through with needed resources over a reasonable period of time. For upstate cities that are hard hit by poverty to see reductions in levels of economic distress among their citizens, a greater recognition of the fact that poverty has become a defining characteristic of central city populations, particularly for families with children, is needed. And, beyond that recognition, realistic, targeted approaches must be created and funded.

The Crisis of Poverty in Upstate New York Cities

For many years, concerns about Upstate New York’s relatively slow economic growth have revolved around the idea that the region’s performance has been subpar, and that by altering government policies, by reducing tax burdens, or by spending money on economic development projects, performance could be improved.

But these analyses ignore the fact that Upstate’s economic performance is largely the result of its historic industry mix, which emphasized manufacturing in the past, its location and its age. All of these factors have worked to make the region less competitive as a location than it once was.

In fact, from the perspective of personal income, upstate metropolitan areas are doing a little better than comparable rust belt cities. Each of the large Upstate metropolitan areas, other than Utica-Rome had a median family income in 2013 that is higher than that of rust belt cities outside New York, on average, or for the United States ($64,719).

mean family incomeWhile residents of Upstate metropolitan areas are doing relatively well, Upstate New York metropolitan areas are distinctive for the amount of economic segregation that exists between the economic fortunes of city residents and those of suburban areas surrounding the cities. In all but one (Albany) Upstate city, incomes of families average a smaller percentage of what suburban families earn than the average of rust belt cities outside New York State. In the most extreme case, the Rochester metropolitan area, city families earn only half of what suburban residents earn.

UntitledThe poor economic condition of Upstate city residents can also be seen by looking at poverty statistics. Other than in the Albany- Schenectady-Troy metropolitan area, Upstate cities have higher percentages of poor people than the rust belt average, with more than 30% of residents living in poverty. In contrast, the percentage of poor people in suburban areas outside cities is very low, well below 10% in all cases except Utica, compared with the rust belt average of 10.5%. Of the 841,636 people who lived in Upstate cities in 2013, 256,973 lived in poverty, while of the 2,037,889 people who lived in the counties outside the central cities, only 160,313 lived in poverty. As a result, the percentage of people in poverty in Syracuse and Schenectady is more than five times higher than in the suburbs, compared with three times higher in rust belt cities outside New York State.

poverty percent of all residents 2013The economic condition of families with children in Upstate cities is of even greater concern. In Rochester and Syracuse, nearly half of families with children live in poverty, while in Buffalo, Utica and Troy the percentage of poor families with children is greater than 45%. In contrast, about 10% of families with children in the suburbs around upstate cities were poor. 92,574 of the 198,549 children under 18 living in the upstate cities lived in poverty in 2013. Outside the cities in the surrounding county, 43,808 of the 437,728 children under 18 lived in poverty. The percentage of families with children living in Syracuse, Rochester, Schenectady and Troy was more than five times higher than in the suburbs, compared with a difference of less than three times in rust belt cities outside New York State.

poverty percent of all familiesThe Growth of Poverty in Upstate Cities

Poverty in Upstate cities grew twice as fast as in the nation as whole, and almost five times as fast as in the suburbs around those cities between 1999 and 2013.  The percent of families with children living in poverty grew by 7% nationally. But the fortunes of upstate city residents were far more adversely affected by poverty than suburban residents during the period. Poverty in families with children in Upstate suburbs grew by an average of 3.3% during the period, while in Upstate cities, poverty grew by 15.3% on average, growing by 17.5% in Rochester, 18.1% in Syracuse, and 23.9% in Troy.

growth of povertyImplications
Efforts to help Upstate New York have, in the past, focused on reducing taxes and creating economic development funds to provide resources to promote regional economic growth. Governor Cuomo’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative encourages the development of Regional Economic Development Councils which have been tasked with the development of strategic plans in competitions for state economic development funds. The program could be potentially beneficial to the Upstate region, if projects are chosen well, and implemented as promised.

But regional strategies do not focus on the needs of the people of Upstate cities who have been hardest hit by the growth of poverty over the past fifteen years. Cities are home to people who compete least effectively for good jobs, because of weak educational backgrounds, high percentages of single parent households, criminal records, transportation difficulties and the like. For those reasons, traditional economic development or tax incentive strategies are unlikely to significantly benefit them. Instead, state leaders should develop strategies that are designed to directly address the obstacles that prevent city residents from getting good, full time jobs.