Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Commentary
A Summer Street garden. Photo by Don Zinteck, courtesy Garden Walk Buffalo.
A Summer Street garden. Photo by Don Zinteck, courtesy Garden Walk Buffalo.

The Growing Season

21
by   / Jun. 21, 2017 12am EST
The Growing Season
The Garden Walk, Canalside, the preservation of the Olmsted Parks: all the result of grassroots efforts that paved the way for public and private investments
Eight years ago, a former Cleveland public official and garden aficionado visited us in Buffalo during Garden Walk weekend. She’d heard good things about summer in Buffalo and was delighted by her visit—so delighted that she came back a year later, and brought a busload of Clevelanders to the 2010 Garden Walk.
Cleveland is a big Buffalo, or a small Detroit. It has pro baseball, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a fabulous art museum, a fabulous symphony, literally world-class healthcare, a river as dirty as Buffalo’s, and a death spiral. Cleveland has experienced hollowing-out almost as complete as Detroit’s, losing fully 25 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010 (with a metro dropoff of 17 percent), while Buffalo has dipped only a few points in a stabilized (stagnant?) metro population. But Cleveland had also by 2010 seen a surge to 150 urban farms from a handful a few years before. And the Clevelanders who came to Buffalo in 2009 and 2010 were infected with our renaissance spirit and responded by starting their own garden walk in 2011, expressly modeled on Buffalo’s. 
The Cleveland Garden Walk is back on schedule for July 8 and 9 in 2017, and is once again focused on four city neighborhoods. Despite Cleveland being more than twice the size of Buffalo (whether one measures city alone or metro), the Buffalo event is older (begun in 1995), has more gardens (400 compared to Cleveland’s 100), and is expected to draw more than 60,000 visitors compared to Cleveland’s 1,000. It’s impossible to measure the value of the word-of-mouth, but the lesson is clear: A bigger, richer community has decided to imitate Buffalo’s obvious success.
Cleveland is rather like the ruling class in Buffalo, which has decided to endorse a middle-class, grassroots, neighborhood-centered program of self-celebration because its monument-centered program of revival hasn’t quite done the trick of turning back the massive forces of deindustrialization, capital flight, middle-class abandonment, and racial centrifuging. Monuments like the Jake, the fortress-like Cleveland Clinic, the downtown casino, and the Flats haven’t brought the people back. The constituencies of the Darwin Martin House, the Albright-Knox, and even the Canalside diversions are, withal, local, and despite the aspirations of the cultural elite, mainly amenities for the already-resident.
Buffalo’s Garden Walk, however, has been a remarkable home-grown success that draws from far and wide—and because of that success, it has reshaped elite behavior.
Nope, not gentrification
Buffalo may have lost its homegrown industrial ownership class in the 1930s, and its unique leverage as the fulcrum of Great Lakes trade in the 1950s, and its university in the 1960s, and its international intellectual leadership in the arts, cancer research, and aeronautics in the 1970s—but Buffalo’s glory days, between 1860 and 1920, bequeathed it architecture, parks, and visual arts whose appreciation and revival are the cornerstones of its current renaissance. 
For that, we can thank Buffalo’s middle-class pioneers in historic preservation and parks revival, and small groups of individuals who curiously persisted in fights against the forces of homogenization, suburban sprawl, and the pernicious financial mechanics of bankers who have thrived on relentless abandonment of the urban core that has created ever-greater opportunities from suburban sprawl.
These days, smart elites have joined the long-existing, homegrown, middle-class embrace of Buffalo’s oldest distinctive icons. That embrace was helped along by the 1999 publication of Classic Buffalo, a book of architectural photography that included monuments but also neighborhood vistas.
The most enduring autochthonous work has been in historic preservation. The Allentown Historic Preservation District has existed since 1978.  There has been a vernacular understanding since then that the mid-to-late-19th century housing stock in Allentown area was special zone, a destination for a relative handful of well-off attorneys, physicians, and business-owners, but also for a far greater number of artists, graduate students, and a diverse rental clientele that has sustained that housing stock precisely because its aesthetic character has ever been priced approximately at the same level as Cheektowaga’s—which is to say, higher than the largely African-American East Side, but lower overall than Amherst, Orchard Park, East Aurora, or even the city’s own Delaware and Parkside neighborhoods. Living in this preservation district has never had a high barrier to entry in Buffalo.
Generational conflict helped shape that district just a few years after downtown business leaders (ahem) made insane decisions, like demolishing Shelton Square, erecting the Main Place Mall and the Convention Center at the expense of old Pearl Street and of the hub-and-spoke design of Buffalo’s ancient renown.
The contempt that local elites had for rowdy preservationists was generational, but it was also rooted sturdily in class. Thus did penniless Boomer activists, and a few not-quite-penniless Boomer attorneys channelling the spirit of Nader’s Raiders in the post-Watergate era, thrive on the contempt of their elders. 
So before the current “official” Buffalo renaissance began, there were the grassroots fights, led by educated middle-class Boomers, to preserve the downtown telephone building, but also the Olmsted Park system, crystallizing in 1982 with the founding of Friends of Olmsted Parks, the predecessor of the Olmsted Conservancy. Educated middle-class Boomers were consciously or unconsciously emulating the City Beautiful movement, but they were mainly rejecting suburbanization and Robert Moses and his epigones like Harry Quinn, chief engineer of the Kensington Expressway, which destroyed Frederick Law Olmsted’s Humboldt Parkway.
When the Preservation Coalition took on City Hall on its tendency to allow Friday-afternoon emergency demolitions of handsome sites like Ohio Street’s Harbor Inn, or the Squire Building at Main near Utica, it was guerrilla theatre. When activists met in Days Park in 1997 and gathered up rakes, snow shovels, and garden spades and took them down to the then-buried Commercial Slip to confront state officials with a threat to “dig history or we will,” it was class and generational rebellion—another assertion for the genuine, the unique, the irreplaceable, the local.
Elite buy-in, public investment
Nowadays, everyone celebrates the food and the extraordinary spaces at the magnificently restored Lafayette Hotel, with its Art Deco ornament, its intricate 1940s inlaid-wood murals of the Buffalo airport and of Buffalo harbor, and its restored trompe l’oeil ceilings—except, of course, when everyone is celebrating the extraordinary spaces of the magnificently re-imagined H. H. Richardson Buffalo Psychiatric Center, now home to the Hotel Henry, where the food is great, the drinks deep, the ceilings impossibly high, the light of late spring a revelation. The million-dollar donors and their followers all followed more than two decades of public investment in restoring the Darwin Martin House complex, which is now nearly complete in a Parkside neighborhood whose homeowners have enjoyed a sensible scale of life in homes that by any other measure than Frank Lloyd Wright’s would have been more than adequately, more than comfortably luxurious—but with all that public money and private philanthropy pouring in, the whole surround is even prettier than before.
The big donors followed the grassroots and the public money. The grassroots embraced the area west of Main Street until the officialized Olmsted Conservancy helped spread the wealth to Martin Luther King, Jr., Park, but the Garden Walk stretches eastward only as far as Main Street, and not past. The African-American middle-class homeowners and rental-property owners have not joined in. Nor have their counterparts in South Buffalo, Riverside, or North Buffalo.
Yet it is all a digestible portion.
Very modest-income households participate in this endeavor, because creating a pretty yard needn’t be a matter of earthworks, fountains, exotic cultivars, or ceramic faeries—just seeds, and watering, and sun, or shared hostas and shade.
The sense of place has taken root. The volunteers who set up model railroads in one of the houses of the Botanical Gardens have stepped up their game, thus: There are scale models of downtown Buffalo buildings, including Shea’s Buffalo theatre, and the building next door with the white glazed-tile facade that used to house Laube’s Old Spain restaurant, and George & Company costumes, and the Hippodrome billiard parlor. There’s the old Erie County Savings Bank in miniature with its gold dome, and the Liberty Building, and even the building that used to house the music store where young Al Boasberg sold jokes and routines to visiting performers like Jack Benny and Bob Hope, until the Buffalo jokester left home to write A Day at the Races and A Night at the Opera for the Marx Brothers.
The protesters of the 1970s fought back against their elders and rescued old buildings, Olmsted’s parks, and the Commercial Slip. They made it safe for the local plutocracy—which has not erected a single iconic office building, opera house, library, museum, or concert hall—to embrace a philanthropy of preservation, restoration, and of tax-credit-driven adaptive re-use of structures from Buffalo’s former great age.
Local vandals used to kick in windows at the Darwin Martin House. The Buffalo Psychiatric Center was largely abandoned. Bethune’s Lafayette Hotel was an SRO flophouse. Now, because of activists, Buffalo may yet conceive a re-use for the Central Terminal, the DL&W Terminal, and other sturdy stone and concrete bequests, probably with public funds, probably with preservationists’ litigation, and, eventually, when it’s socially safe, with philanthropy from those plutocrats who aren’t just taking tax credits or claiming that they’re donors when they’re actually just using their businesses’ advertising budgets.
In the meantime, there is Garden Walk, a very democratic event, a dramatic assertion of more than 20 years of the power of individual caring, in a general sort of collusion or conspiracy with similarly souled neighbors, nothing terribly complicated except of course for the formidably talented and the admirably committed—but withal, a very sane rebuke of the old idea, left over from the sad age of deindustrialization and suburbanization, that Buffalo isn’t a place worth tending. Given that there is still an aggregate of more than 1,500 acres of parcels that are assessed at under $10,000, there is precisely no quantifiable case that vernacular, popular efforts at aesthetic uplift are displacing low- or moderate-income households; and given that the overwhelming majority of real-property wealth in the region remains beyond city limits, there’s also no evidence that vernacular beautification, preservation, and adaptive re-use projects are making rehabbers and parks-promoters into tycoons.
But let’s not shrink from asserting what Clevelanders and other admirers have already figured out—which is that Buffalo’s activists have reclaimed, restored, and reinvigorated the built environment here, and have driven politicians from the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Andrew Cuomo to invest in unique structures and spaces, and that it’s citizen participation that has made it safe for the economic elite to pitch in. Of such embrace of ancient wealth, with new energy and new combativeness, is a renaissance made. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Published December 23, 2015

Commentary
Syrian refugees arrive on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to Lesbos island, Greece, September 9, 2015. Photo courtesu of Freedom House.
Syrian refugees arrive on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to Lesbos island, Greece, September 9, 2015. Photo courtesu of Freedom House.

Besieged: Learning and Ignorance in Policy-making

153
by   / Dec. 23, 2015 9am EST
In the quietly Teutonic suburbs of Buffalo, where the new national politics of Muslim-hating builds on the solid base of black-hating and Jew-hating, November 2015 saw the Town of Elma resolving to let Christian refugees in. Only Christians. If those Christians happen to be Arabic-speaking, perhaps they’ll smile at being welcomed—but not at taxpayer expense, mind you—to a town whose name means “apple” in Arabic. Meanwhile, back in the heimat of the Fishers, November saw Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the other adult German children whose political lives expiate Teutonic guilt for the Holocaust, welcome more refugees than any other country.
To say that there is no historical memory in the anti-tax, Tea Party-ruled Elma Town Council would be oxymoronic. Their foreign policy, as they passed their pro-Christian resolution, bears a striking similarity to that of the American Anthropological Association, which that same November week passed its own ahistorical, naive, pernicious resolution, this one an anti-Jew resolution, just in time to make a little bit of e-news before allegedly devout Muslim jihadis massacred more than a hundred in Paris and then then another 14 in San Bernadino.
Dopes in suburbia, dopes with professorships. Trying to understand the politics of religiously justified violence is hard work, which some anthropologists and political scientists are working at diligently, even as there’s a pernicious confluence of anti-understanding happening here on this, our fair island of American innocence and studied ignorance.
By contrast, there is the Norwegian scholar Thomas Heggehammer. He probably doesn’t have many readers among either our suburban Tea Partiers nor among the intellectual politically correct crowd. The Tea Party just wants to bash all Muslims, and the the PC campus elite, our wannabe Martin Heideggers, the ones who want to side with animal spirits against somewhat antiquated notions like human rights, free speech, and such, both willfully ignore ugly realities. Specifically, the Tea Partiers ignore the impact of Muslim-bashing as they embrace the amplified fear-stoking of Trump and of Republican political consultants, and the PC crowd ignores the bloody reality of a tiny but empowered fringe Muslim religiosity that favors, justifies, and even encourages killing Jews, Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, and indeed anybody who isn’t with the jihadi program.
Learned leaders
It is not coincidence that the Town of Elma passed its resolution in the same week that the American Anthropological Association resolved to boycott Israeli universities because they are, assert the anthros, “complicit” in anti-Palestinian Arab actions of the Israeli government. After the anthros acted, the Women’s Studies Association resolved an Israeli boycott, too.
It’s a good bet that the actions of a few learned anthropologists and women’s studies scholars don’t have much political relevance. But these expressions are of a piece with the Elma Town Council’s resolution: It’s all about simplifying and avoiding unpleasant realities. Doubtless Elma’s leaders carefully considered the lengthy history of European and American intervention into the Middle East, and concluded, after deep study, that US oil politics, support for the Shi’a in Iraq but not in Iran or Saudi Arabia or Syria or Lebanon, and being in lockstep with the wannabe Ataturk known as Erdogan, make a statement of town-level refugee policy critical to resolving conflicts in eastern Syria while asserting American constitutional law here. 
Nor can one really question the American Anthropological Association’s deep research into Israeli politics, in which about 5.5 million Jews as well as about 1.8 million Arab Muslims and Christians today participate, shaped these days again by the random assaults on Israeli civilians (now by knife) and by occasional rockets and mortar shells lobbed into Israel by civilian-killers sited in Gaza. At one time, presumably in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, perhaps even into the 1980s, anthropologists knew that Israeli politics had had to digest the existential threat of religious-sanctioned genocide before, during, and after Independence in 1948. At one time, maybe when the Boomer scholars were still playing with their Barbies and Daniel Boone coonskin caps, they knew that Israeli Jews, fresh off the boats from Europe, once enjoyed near-universal international political support, except of course from Arab states with Muslim religious authorities sanctioning, justifying, even encouraging Jew-killing. Just before the lifetime of the Boomers who now lead American academic organzations, anti-Semitism in Europe had nearly succeeded in wiping the Jews out—but after Hitler’s defeat, every country from the Soviet Union to Iran to the USA recognized that the Jew-killing might stop were the Zionists to achieve their dream of a reconstituted Jewish polity in the ancient Jewish homeland.
Here’s a New Year’s resolution from one German-surnamed academic: It’s time for Americans to sit still and study up, and whether you like Bernie or Hillary or even Jeb! for 2016, pay attention to the people who are trying to help Barack Obama manage the problem that simply refuses to go away—namely, that there are people with guns who want to wipe out the Jews, the Christians, and anybody else who isn’t with the caliphate program, and that there at at least one billion Muslims who aren’t with the caliphate program, a billion who are our allies, not our enemies.
Knowledge: a better policy guide than fear
Norwegian scholar Thomas Heggehammer is not, from his CV, a member of either the Elma Town Board, the American Anthropological Association, nor the Women’s Studies Association. Nor is he a caliphate guy. He studied Hebrew and Arabic in France, lectures all over the US, advises the Norwegian and US governments, and uses his skills to promote understanding of this dangerous phenomenon that he has spent 15 years studying—the new jihadism—with neither the prejudice of an Elma politician nor the agenda of an Israel-bashing PC academic.
Heggehammer is an exemplar of a Wwestern-educated scholar who speaks the languages, studies the texts, does the field work, and lets his subjects do the talking even as he does his job, which is to publish his findings and subject himself to peer review—and that’s how come he actually helps the people whose job it is to keep civilians safe from murderous violence. He does this work at a time when our political class, and our wannabe geopoliticians, want to keep it very simple. 
Heggehammer works on the psychological and cultural dimensions of the jihadist movements. He has studied the Afghans, but his focus is the former territory of the Ottoman Empire, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Turkey. Though not yet as famous as the American scholars Bernard Lewis, Marshall Hodgson, or Edward Said—who all tried to explain the widespread sense of aggrievement at the West harbored in the Muslim world—Heggehammer writes and speaks for wider audiences than his fellow academic specialists who dissect the Arabic-language poetry and song, live and on social media, in which jihadists justify their actions with appeals to sacred texts and to deep cultural traditions. 
The PC crowd needs to face up to what Heggehammer sees: young armed people singing songs and reciting poetry about killing Christians, Jews, and others. The Elma/Tea Party crowd needs to face up to what Heggehammer also sees: that the Jihadis are a miniscule subculture that can only be dealt with, in the interests of everybody else in the world who wants to go about their business without fear of being machine-gunned, knifed, or suicide-bombed, if the entire Muslim world is not told that being Muslim equals being jihadi in the West’s eyes.
Heggehammer the scholar writes papers and delivers lectures that can help the necessary intercultural, interfaith, international conversation that Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others need to have—all in pursuit not of western capitalist hegemony, not in support of the triumph of white privilege, but rather in support of what the tragic philosopher Ernst Cassirer debated the egregious intellectual pimp and Nazi Martin Heidegger about, namely, the preferability of a universal, comprehensive, inclusive notion of what it means to be human. Heidegger, the guy who bought into the PC of his day, got his big-time academic reward. Cassirer, the earnest promoter of the notion of a human essence that transcended nation, state, and sacred text, was exiled from the nation he’d so naively embraced.
Our anthros are today’s Heideggers, but one would have expected more of them. After all, their profession has been maturing. For people whose professional lives are rooted in the triumph of Western imperialism, and in the entertainment-oriented curiosity of the ruling classes about indigenous conquered peoples, some introspection might have been expected before they sided with the people who make videos instructing Muslims that the pinnacle achievement of group identity comes from knifing Israeli innocents or other dhimmi. Here in the land of free speech, in our infantilizing island, some of our learned colleagues are becoming enthusiasts for people who would exterminate them. Thankfully these days, it is possible to read other anthropologists who no longer gild the lily or gloss over hideous realities like jihadi violence against minorities, or like old calamities that used to be excused, such as the mass Aztec sacrifice (i.e., ritual murder) of children, which brutal Spanish colonialism ended (mainly unwittingly, mind you, by importing killer diseases from the Eurasian-North African to the North American biome). Thankfully, these days our students here in Buffalo can read both about the intellectual and poetic integrity of Iroquois texts, and yet also learn about the Iroquois practice of genocidal warfare. Professionally, there’s been some maturing since the days of 1960s first-wave historical revisionism, in which the European males were universally evil. Politically, however, maturity hasn’t happened.
Heggehammer’s papers are easily accessed, balanced, insightful, and helpful. He parses the jihadists’ words about Western colonialism, about cultural expropriation, about authentic indigenous culture and Sunni Muslim religiosity. He helps explain that these killers are not robots, and that jihadis have skillfully overtaken the language of emotions in a way that has a deep cultural resonance. 
“A common denominator of things like music, imagery, storytelling, or weeping is that they evoke or involve emotion,” Heggehammer writes, noting how Muslim intellectuals inside and outside the jihadi movement appeal to the authority of revered authors like al-Ghazali, the 12th-century theologian who “wrote extensively on the benefits of weeping.” The terrorist Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the late dictator Saddam Hussein’s enemy, a man who sent many suicide bombers against American soldiers and against civilians in Iraq, was known simultaneously as al-dhabbah (the slaughterer) and al-baki (he who weeps a lot). This guy who personally beheaded captives on video, who sought war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and whose influence lives on in a quasi-state that terrorists say inspires if not directs them, “was known for weeping during prayer and when speaking about Muslim women’s suffering under occupation.”
If we who would live are to thwart the murderous designs of those who would willingly die just to kill us, then it makes sense to know this vocabulary, and to reclaim it for peace. 
In studying culture, Heggehammer is trying to give some shape to the mental processes of those who made international news shooting civilians in Paris and San Bernadino, who daily knife Israeli civilians, and who in the past few years have massacred and enslaved religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. He quotes the poetry of a young Syrian woman, whose most widely dsitributed collection includes the verses “Shake the throne of the cross, and Extinguish the fire of the Zoroastrians / Strike down every adversity, and go reap those heads.”
Culture, it would seem, ought to be relevant subject-matter for the people who would keep Western and other civilians safe from the murderous violence of the people Heggehammer studies. But culture, it would seem, ought not to be blandly accepted as justification for ignoring the decision that Jews have made, with international support, not to be annihilated by people who claim scriptural authority for killing them.
One would hope that Americans, long beneficiaries of the notion of protected speech, protected free association, and legally enforced rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as our own foundational text has it, might pick up on how the real threat we can pose to jihadis is spreading our view, Cassirer’s view, the universalist view, and not what these guys are selling.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo State and director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.
Published January 13, 2016

Commentary

In the Money: WNY Income Data

372
by   / Jan. 13, 2016 12am EST
The median household income in New York State in 2013 was $58,003. Half the households in our state made more, half less. That number is derived from everybody whose incomes can be tracked in one way or another, principally by looking at tax returns.
But statewide numbers miss some important distinctions. In Upstate New York, by which we mean everything outside the New York City metro area, we have rich and poor just like in Gotham, but most households are far less well off than there.
A new look at the just-released tax returns from 2013 tells the story starkly, and no more so than in Western New York.
In 2013, three-quarters of the people who filed income-tax returns in the eight counties of Western New York reported incomes below the New York State median income of $58,003. In Erie County, the largest Upstate county, with some of the highest-income New Yorkers outside Gotham, the median income was $50,653. In Niagara County, the median income was $47,955. In Cattaraugus County, it was $42,603; in Allegany County, it was $42,445; and in Chautauqua County, it was $42,429. 
The Upstate-Downstate comparison is useful, but keeping it closer to home, the numbers show that more than two-thirds of everybody filing income tax returns in the counties of Western New York reported incomes below their own county’s median income. 
Money shapes politics. The politics of Upstate New York’s rural and small-town areas are the politics of overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly low-income households that are at the rude end of big trends: deindustrialization, globalization, and, since at least the Great Recession of 2008-2011, a shift toward economic recovery through growth in low-wage jobs that lack the employee benefits and employment security that were part of the picture before.
So what we have in Upstate is a population that earns and behaves politically as if it lived in a Red state.
Very rich, very poor
The tax return data show how the much-remarked trend toward income polarization happens here.
In Erie County, people who filed returns stating incomes over $200,000 reported almost 24 percent of total income. They amounted to 10,452 households out of the 424,500 that filed tax returns here. If we add in all the filers reporting over $100,000 in income, another 39,183 return-filers, we account for about half of all reported income here. This means that less than 12 percent of the folks here made half the income. All the other people who filed tax returns, more than 375,000 of them, almost 9 out of 10 people here, divided up the rest.
It is no wonder that Buffalo’s metro area has a small but robust luxury-car market, some very elegant restaurants, some comparatively expensive real estate, and other visible manifestations of high-end consumer culture. With over 10,000 households reporting over $200,000 incomes—over 2,000 of those households reported over $500,000 in one-year income in 2013—the visibility of all the behaviors associated with high-income consumers is far greater than in rural counties like Orleans, where there were 124 income-tax returns filed in 2013 that reported incomes above $200,000, out of a total over 17,000. The numbers are similar in Chautauqua County, where the visible high-end consumption is among seasonal occupants, most of whose tax domiciles are elsewhere.
But look again at the middle-income numbers. In every Western New York county except Erie County, more than two-thirds of households report incomes below $49,559. That is the number that economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say is required in order to keep a household of two adults and three children above the poverty threshold. 
MIT calculates the costs of housing, food, transportation, medicine, daycare, and other basics for each county in the US. With a median income that is several thousand dollars below what MIT says is a “living wage,” the small-town and rural dwellers of Western New York are in the same boat as the majority of people living in the center-city neighborhoods of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Jamestown, and Lockport. In other words, the poor rural white folks have much in common with the visible minorities who are concentrated in urban centers.
The politics of $15 
The numbers of households that are at or below the poverty level should be an eye-opener for every policymaker, even though the cultural and political divide over economic issues has been durable. What has happened in the last year, however, is a dawning awareness beyond traditional Democratic constituencies that income polarization, and income stagnation for the vast majority of workers, are beyond individuals’ power to affect—which helps to explain why the politics of a $15 minimum wage have changed so sharply.
In Erie County, fully 54 percent of people filing tax returns report incomes of under $30,000—which is what a full-time worker making $15 an hour would make if he or she worked 40 hours a week for 50 weeks. That’s not take-home pay: that’s gross pay, before Social Security taxes, before income taxes, and before the sales taxes that every consumer pays on many grocery items, clothes, and gasoline, and before the property taxes that low-wage folks tend to pay as a part of their rent.
The politics of $15 an hour is very straightforward. But these data show that the economics is pretty simple too. Showing the equivalent of less than a $15 hourly wage in half the households in Erie County—and many more than half in the rural counties—demonstrates that the Upstate regional economy is heavily reliant on a low-income marketplace.
But with 50,000 households here reporting over $100,000 in income, and with aspirational consumption being the well-established cultural norm, there is significant push-back against raising the minimum wage.
So notwithstanding the widespread poverty and near-poverty status of rural and small-town Upstate New York families, almost all of whom are white, don’t expect electoral support of Governor Andrew Cuomo or of pro-$15-per-hour minimum wage Democratic challengers for Congress or the New York State legislature in areas where $30,000 a year would be like winning the lottery.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo State and the director of the Center for Economic Policy Studies.