Outrages & Insights
Better leadership is needed to guide the region back to social and economic health
Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.
Our nation has a lot of work ahead of it if it is to address the structural racism laid bare by COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd, and the protests that followed.
These are tough times, as tough times go. And they’re not going away anytime soon.
The COVID-19 pandemic remains a threat to both public health and economic well-being of the country, Buffalo and Western New York included.
While the coronavirus is under control locally, at least compared with much of the rest of the country, it’s going to be a fact of life for quite some time. Yes, there’s talk of a vaccine, perhaps by the end of the year. But vaccines typically take five to ten years to develop and test before they’re safe for widespread public use. Anything sooner would be a bonus.
The semi-effective means of controlling—not eliminating—the virus are, of course, wearing masks and maintaining social distance. Unfortunately, the promotion of such efforts has been undermined by Donald Trump and numerous Republican governors, whose actions are exacerbating the crisis and causing needless deaths.
Then there’s the economic cost of the pandemic, which is comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Buffalo and WNY have been hit especially hard; this spring, unemployment hovered at around twenty-five percent and, while the numbers have improved somewhat since then, the structural problems of the regional economy make recovery an especially challenging proposition—and that assumes the pandemic itself recedes.
Yes, I know, we were in the midst of an economic renaissance, or so Governor Cuomo told us. But we weren’t, not really: our growth lagged behind most of the country. And much of that growth was in junk jobs. Investigative Post reported in 2017 that three-quarters of the jobs added to the WNY economy since Cuomo took office in 2010 were in the low-wage sector. Restaurants and bars were the biggest job creators.
It’s going to take time for businesses to recover from the pandemic, and many won’t survive, including a lot of the aforementioned bars and restaurants. Our weak economic foundation is going to impede the recovery, and our economic development policies aren’t geared for the task at hand. (Handouts to politically connected developers and vanity projects like Tesla weren’t a good strategy to begin with.)
All this is going to continue to impact a return to life as we knew it. Prospects are dim for everything from downtown office space to suburban shopping malls to Bills and Sabres game attendance. Education will change as well, and there’s a good chance you’re going to see some private colleges close.
There is a change to look forward to, which should help.
Trump faces re-election this November, and signs increasingly point to a victory by Joe Biden. That would put the federal government back in the hands of people who value expertise and believe in science. It gives America a fighting chance of dealing intelligently with the pandemic and all the other problems that Trump and his Republican enablers have foisted on the country. Call it addition by subtraction.
There’s a lot of talk about how deeply divided we are as a nation, and there’s truth to that. But when you consider demographic trends, the present era might represent the beginning of the end of Trump-style politics. Not that it will go away, but its prospects at the ballot box will dim. The population is becoming increasingly diversified and social mores are becoming increasingly tolerant. Angry white men don’t like it, but that’s a fact.
While the political situation could improve nationally, the same can’t be said locally. We need smart, bold leadership from our local elected officials and those are not traits commonly found in our political class, which seems to favor “go along to get along.”
Just as it was needed in the aftermath of the closing of Bethlehem Steel and other manufacturers in the early 1980s, we need to reinvent our local economy. What’s more, we need to address social justice issues that have been laid bare in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.
Where’s the public and private sector leadership, to tackle these issues? I don’t see it, not in great abundance, anyway. Not here, and certainly not in Albany. Face it, our governance, locally and across New York, amounts to a failed state. The 105 cities, towns, villages, and school districts that populate Erie and Niagara Counties largely function as a jobs program for the political class. Key public institutions, starting with the Buffalo Board of Education, are captive to special interests who care little for the well-being of those they’re supposed to serve.
We need an overhaul, folks, and I’m not at all confident we’re going to do much more than muddle along.