The Biggest Story Behind the Economic Data in Buffalo, NY

This week, as the Federal Reserve raised interest rates for the 6th time in less than seven months, Marketplace is running a series of stories from Buffalo, New York.

Buffalo is one place where salaries for the nation’s lowest-paid workers have risen a lot in recent years — more than 40% according to an analysis by payroll processing company ADP. At the same time, the cost of living is rising.

Marketplace” host Ryssdal and ADP Chief Economist Nela Richardson spoke with small business owners, workers and others around Buffalo about how they are experiencing this economic moment. After a few days of reporting from the field, Ryssdal and Richarson sat down to reflect. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Rysdal: We’ve been reporting to Buffalo for a few days. And when we talked at the cafe, we talked about hope. Tell me what you saw that gives you hope for Buffalo.

Nela Richardson: I think the bike [shop] the owner said it best, Ethan. It’s looking for those hills and not being afraid of them, and stepping over the hill. And they do. You hear about confidence and optimism all the time – you hear about it in the stock market, you hear about it in the economy, you hear about it whether inflation has peaked or not. Hope is different. Hope is like “I see the obstacles, I know those obstacles can overcome me, but I have hope that I can overcome them.” And that’s what I see in Buffalo.

A shopper at FeedMore WNY's Farm Market truck, which aims to increase access to affordable fresh produce.
A shopper at FeedMore WNY’s Farm Market Truck, aimed at increasing access to affordable fresh produce. (Photo by Brandon Watson)

Rysdal: About that hope, the challenge, of course, is the low-income people we were talking about at the coffee shop the other day. They must have food on the table every day. They have to make do with wages which, although increasing a lot, are still relatively low. You talked a lot about coming from a city like this. If you went back to your hometown [of Richmond, Indiana] today, what do you think you would see? Would you see the same set of problems?

Richardson: Absolutely. In fact, if I go to a lot of small towns, you would see the same problem. And the thing is, you get to see it. Think of all the policymakers and economists sitting in New York and DC who don’t see it. And I think there’s a detachment between the numbers, the data, and the people those numbers represent.

Rysdal: So look, how do we make this connection? Because that’s literally my job, is to tell the stories of people in places like Buffalo so that people in positions of power can make decisions that affect people’s lives. How do we do that?

Richardson: Well, I think talking to people is a good start. I have learned so much in the past two days. I learned about innovation. The business owners we spoke to, two of them, started businesses during a pandemic. It’s like, “Hey, the world is on fire. Let me start a business. I mean, who does that? Who starts a business first? He is someone who knows how to manage ambiguity, unlike many of our decision-makers. And that’s what all these people exemplify. People on fixed incomes? They start the month with a fixed amount of money, and they make sure the money lasts the whole 30-31 days, and they’re innovative about that. They use what they have to get where they need to go. And I think that’s something that’s missing in a national discourse on our big issues.

Khilialah Reese, one of the small business owners Ryssdal and Richardson spoke with in Buffalo, helps a customer at his restaurant, Taste of Soul.
Khilialah Reese, one of the small business owners Ryssdal and Richardson spoke to in Buffalo, helps a customer at his restaurant, Taste of Soul. (Photo by Brandon Watson)

Rysdal: You know what word I haven’t heard at all in the last few days, that we hear all the time in national discourse, and I’m as guilty of it as anyone? Recession. I haven’t heard that word at all.

Richardson: What does “recession” mean when you are in a daily struggle? I mean, the recession is something you can think about. It’s not your daily life. That’s not what you think of when you open the doors to your restaurant or business. You think about how you get customers in the door today. The recession is something you might be thinking about if you turn on the news later at night. It’s not how you run your day.

Rysdal: The reason we are here is because we have been talking to you and your loved ones for a long time about the data you have. And what it shows you about cities, people, and income. Granted, this is an anecdotal question, but was your data generally validated by what you’ve seen here?

Richardson: Yes. Our data reflects a human experience. And it was the first time I saw the data correspond to a human experience. Our data showed low-wage workers in Buffalo saw a 40% year-over-year increase. That’s not the whole story. There is a whole experience beyond this story. There’s an experience from the store owner’s perspective that they can’t get those same workers at the price they paid them last year. There is an experiment about people who cannot work and what that means in terms of inflation. There’s the whole housing component of being able to build a business based on your passion because it’s affordable. You can do it here in Buffalo. So yes, I would say the data was validated, but it also showed us that there was a larger story behind that data point.

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