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Pandemic creating new struggles for those already in rural poverty

Rural Outreach Center

Some 50-square miles of Erie and Cattaraugus counties that were in rough economic and social shape before the COVID pandemic is in much worse shape now. That is from Rural Outreach Center Executive Director Henry Cerny, whose agency serves the area from an office just outside East Aurora.

East Aurora has some of the best living, top housing, great jobs and fine public schools in Erie County. Cerny said his agency serves poor people struggling with self-sufficiency, bad housing, no transportation and 30% of homes lack the internet access needed for school and other work.

"When I meet with the folks down in Olean, with the Department of Social Services down there, they readily admit that the people in the northern margins of Cattaraugus County are simply beyond their ability to reach and they’re grateful for what we’re doing," Cerny said. "Similarly, Erie County. There’s a recognition, but they haven’t stepped up to the plate yet to help us."

Cerny said people want to work.

"Every one of them would dearly love to have a well-paying job," he said. "I’m not talking about developing a wealth account, but what’s available to them under normal circumstances: Dollar General, McDonald’s, waitressing."

Cerny sees the problems interlinked with the mental health issues caused by isolation in bad housing. However, one problem overwhelms the others.

"We actually received some funding from Erie County to try to come up with a mechanism to address the transportation issue, which if I had to put my finger on one single issue that if we could solve would be a huge barrier removed for our population, it would be transportation," he said.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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