Library board bringing people together to examine community strengths, weaknesses

CANANDAIGUA — The good news: Ontario County is trending better overall than the other 61 New York counties in education, health, public safety and supporting children and teens. The bad news: Housing, economic security, the overall economy and community vitality factors are all trending downward in the comparison.

That’s according to one of several reports on the status of Ontario County discussed Monday before a large audience at Wood Library. Board President Laurie Riedman moderated the roundtable discussion with a four-person panel: Jamie Farr, superintendent of the Canandaigua City School District; Ann Johnson, executive director of ACT Rochester; Mark McNaney, assistant professor, economics, at Keuka College; and Kari Buch, executive director of United Way of Ontario County.

Buch talked about the dilemma working families face if they earn just above the poverty level that would otherwise qualify them for services and other supports. A United Way report called ALICE, addressing the issue, found that 28 percent of families in the county earn income above the poverty level but still cannot afford a household survival budget — basic necessities of housing, food, transportation, childcare and healthcare.

Overall, 37 percent of households in the county struggle to afford the basics, the report finds.

Farr cited sobering statistics from the school district. A decade ago, 22 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch. A recent three-year average shows that’s now at 37 percent. What’s more, in the elementary school over 40 percent of students now qualify for free lunch. While there’s much to celebrate — such as the Canandaigua Academy graduation rate that rose from 86 percent 10 years ago to the current rate over 95 percent — the need to provide students with mental and emotional support is greater than ever, Farr said.

Johnson with ACT Rochester — which recently released its 2019 report card for the nine-county region including Ontario — talked about barriers working families face. She said that while there’s a big push to raise the hourly wage, there are factors in addition to wages that can make or break families. Those include workplace environment, work hours, transportation, healthcare and childcare needs.

McNaney, with Keuka College, compared Ontario County to the nation on key points including population growth, unemployment and median household income. “Ontario County is a mirror image of what is going on in the United States as a whole,” McNaney said. The distribution of wealth and pace of growth may be slightly different, but Ontario County is still a reflection of how the U.S. is trending.

Ontario County median household income of $61,710 is about 6 percent above the national median income of $61,327. A population growth rate of 4 percent is in keeping with the national trend, as is an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent.

McNaney talked about the problem of too many jobs for too few workers. Nationwide there are currently 7 million job openings, with under 6 million people in the unemployment pool.

“We need immigration,” McNaney said. The nation was once built on immigration — “this was the breadbasket of the whole world,” he said. “We need immigration to fill the needs.”

Johnson said everyone can play a part in making a better community.

“Please vote,” she said. “Get out and take action.”

“Fill out the census and volunteer where you can,” she added. One person can’t do everything so pick one area you feel passionate about, Johnson said.

Buch emphasized the significance of bringing people together to tackle problems through a united front.

“We can’t do it alone,” she said.