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Angels in Flight

Numbers, trends, and denial

Unless a last-minute fundraising extravaganza succeeds, Holy Angels Academy will soon be closing, as have so many sturdy Buffalo institutions created for children. This should surprise no one: In 1970, there were 223,390 boys and girls between the ages of five and 14 in Erie County. In 2010, there were 135,079. In 2030, the Cornell University Program in Applied Demographics projects that there will be 103,881, when Erie County’s total population will be about 100,000 souls smaller than it is today.

Today’s demographic reality, and the trend toward a smaller, older population, has resulted in two dysfunctional but typical Rust Belt political stances. The first pose: Deny or ignore the trends, and promise the public that the next big public works project will be the one true salvation. The other pose: Deny or ignore the trends, and promise the public that killing government will deliver us a new dawn. Not surprisingly, neither the annual infusion of billions of public works dollars into the Buffalo area, nor the relentless government-bashing of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, has resulted in a change of trajectory.

For that, we need some fundamentals to change—not only here but all across the northern tier of American cities, and in Washington, too.

Facing the numbers

Holy Angels never stood a chance: Not only are there fewer children in the pool of potential applicants but the fortunes of families here and all across the Rust Belt have changed since January 7, 1972. That’s when Richard Nixon gave a racializing mind-thug named William Rehnquist a job in the big white building next to the Library of Congress, the one with the columns and the nine black-robed Solons inside who say what the law is. The political and economic decline of the community that sustained Holy Angels, and so many other now-defunct institutions of Buffalo’s industrial age, dates from then.

The politics of desegregation had a role in the collapse of Northern cities, and Nixon’s guy Rehnquist cast the key vote in the Supreme Court’s 1974 Milliken decision that signed off on inside-the-boundary school desegregation. That vote stimulated middle-class flight from Buffalo, and stimulated suburban sprawl, depleting the economic power of the urban core, a power that conservative economist Ed Glaeser calculates, enumerates, and celebrates in his book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Reversing urban decline is a huge project, a huge complex, politically challenging, economically critical project at which few are succeeding.

The trouble is money. Until the mid-1970s, there was a 30-year trend toward growth in all household incomes, with some sprawl, but usually accompanied by population growth. In the mid-1970s, the middle- and lower-income household uplift stopped—and in the Rust Belt, so did population growth. Great polarization of income has accelerated, here and throughout America, as a couple of the key engines of broadly-distributed income growth—manufacturing jobs and unions, plus government investments in people—have sputtered.

That’s part of the reason why 70 percent of the households that filed tax returns in Erie County in 2009 reported taxable income of under $50,000. In that year, income tax returns showed that just 7,670 of the 410,000 households here took in almost a quarter of all the income received from work, investments, pensions, and transfer payments in Erie County. The number of families that can afford the $20,000-a-year base tuition of a private school like Nichols or Buffalo Seminary is about the same, but the number of families that can scrape together the $6,000 to $10,000 cost of a parochial school has shrunk—simply because the median household income hasn’t grown, while incomes at the very top have. The low-tuition “feeder” elementary schools in the neighborhood suffered first, mainly because of sprawl, but also because of that concurrent income squeeze. White kids weren’t being born where the Catholic schools had been built; and despite massive efforts to recruit and assist minority kids into the parochial system, cultural and financial gaps have never closed here or anywhere else in the Rust Belt.

And then three are the city kids, especially the minority kids, whose presence defines cities including ours. Here’s a glimpse: Just a couple of years ago, three-quarters of the 32,000 kids in the Buffalo Public schools were eligible for free and reduced-price meals, or FARMS. Now over 80 percent are. The number of kids in suburban schools who can get FARMS is growing, too, but poverty within the Rehnquist-reinforced boundaries of city public school districts that is the overwhelming, quantified reality that neither liberal reformers nor Tea Part cranks can face up to.

The Cornell phenomenon

But now that there are at least some here serene enough to count the noses and the nickels, let us ask: What is to be done so that we don’t lose another Holy Angels?

That’s a way of asking a series of connected questions: how to reconstitute the middle class, how to refresh the urban core, how to sustain cultural traditions, and how to bring new leadership that will be more capable than yesterday’s leadership of seeing how these issues connect.

Who will we turn to for reconstituting the American middle class? This question goes first to Washington, for it is about reshaping national economic policy. Progressive tax reform would help, and there may be a possibility of a reprise of the 1986 Ronald Reagan-Tip O’Neill deal that gave us progressivity and some restraint on the loophole lobby if only for an eye-blink. But while that year-long effort gets underway, there is a growing understanding that ending the stupid “sequester” cuts would help.

But more is needed. Listening more to Paul Krugman and less to Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart would help. Rogoff and Reinhart have just been eviscerated by a grad student from UMass, who showed how they miscalculated quite badly in blaming government spending and debt for the slow economic recovery. (Stephen Colbert’s hilarious and understandable interview is a great two-minute clip.) But we’ve got to get a different Congress if we’re going to get a different national economic policy—and members of Congress are chosen here at home, not in Washington.

That means re-shaping some of our own thought processes, right here, right now. Locally. So far, we haven’t been able to break out of the pour-the-cement/scream-against-government dysfunction duopoly among opinion leaders.

The way it works here, and in most communities, is that we tend to ask the folks in the top tier to help decide on public policy. Not surprisingly, the highest-income individuals contribute a lot to schools, to arts and culture, and to politicians, too. It’s a rarity to see the member of a median-income household appointed by the governor, county executive, or mayor to head an advisory board, or to the regents, or to lead a cultural institution.

Going forward, it would be good to know who our decision-makers are going to be—not just their names but their outlook. And there is no better place to go hunting for insight into that mindset than to the places where our economic elites get trained.

Thus to Cornell. At the mention of the Ivy League university nearest to Buffalo, which has hundreds of alums nearby, progressives smile, because they think of Sam Magavern, LouJean Fleron, and the Partnership for the Public Good all working at the local office of the Cornell University Institute of Labor Relations. But there is also the New York City Cornell—the mid-town Cornell Club, the Cornell-Weill Medical School in Manhattan, and the new reality which is visible on the pages of the Cornell University student-run daily newspaper. In the jobs section, there are about 1,000 want ads directed toward the talented students of Cornell. Perusing 50 pages of those ads reveals a pattern: Over 90 percent of them are ads from financial institutions—hedge funds, brokerage houses, investment boutiques, big banks—that are quite clear about what they want and how much they’re willing to pay. The message Cornell students get couldn’t be more clear: Wall Street wants talent and will pay to take you there.

The outsize rewards of the financial industry are changing our culture in ways that reshape the old neighborhood. Our talented young people are understandably drawn away to the place where the rewards are. There isn’t a single ad for a Buffalo firm in today’s online edition of the Cornell Daily.

Our regional legacy of beloved institutions, of both designed and natural beauty, of cultural continuity rooted in this place, is now in the hands of folks whose peer-group training teaches them that financial capital is the only capital that matters. That is the hurdle we’ll have to get over, but get your spreadsheets right: The outcomes here won’t change if the only numbers we crunch are Wall Street’s.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at www.sunypress.edu.

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