For the past few months I’ve been writing on poverty in North Carolina in both the Carrboro Citizen and the Independent Weekly. The focus began when poverty numbers came out last fall showing a huge increase in the state and a particularly big jump in Orange County, where I live.
Because of my own experience in trying to survive in the Midwest during the intense Rust Belt recession of the early 1980s, the struggle faced by those living in poverty and surrounded by poverty has special meaning. I count my move to North Carolina in 1985 and the support of my new-found community as the critical opportunity to live a better life. I’ll be forever grateful for that opportunity. There were not only jobs here, but the chance for furthering my education, something I’d given up on ever being able to afford.
So, yes, this is personal. When I see a statistic like the 47 percent jump in four years in the number of people in Orange County living in poverty or yet another rise in tuition on top of decades of increases, I don’t see numbers I see people. I remember my friends who did not make it out of the dark world of hunger and homelessness and constant despair. I think about doors closing to education for non-traditional students and for students from the very places the university should be intent on lifting up.
Life on the margin — a casual phrase if there ever was one — isn’t theoretical. I know that place. I’ve lived there. The image of poverty in popular culture is highly distorted. Here in Orange County it’s come to be associated more with homelessness and men grown old before their time sleeping in the woods or on rooftops. They stand out as emblems of poverty because they fit the image. But they’re only a slice of those that populate marginland. What we fail to realize is that the place is full of children. Working families make up the bulk of the people in poverty. They represent the unfulfilled promise of this country, the reality that busts the myth that you can work your way up and provide the next generation with a better life and the tools and education to lift up their children.
To once again make real that promise for all of us is the challenge of our times. For there is far too much acceptance of a permanent underclass, far too much contentment with the status quo and utter blindness as to who we’ve condemned to a life we’d never wish on anyone.
Essay One: Stand Up to the Bullies
(originally published in The Carrboro Citizen on December 15, 2011 )
One late night a few years back in a then-smoky club, a friend of mine who worked at a local social service agency was describing the difficulties faced by those who advocate for the homeless.
The conversation drifted around to the way so many people seem to prefer expressing compassion with a kind of detachment, how it’s easier to send off a check to some worthwhile cause than to rub elbows with some unfortunate, unkempt human being walking the streets where you live.
“They’re not dolphins, Kirk,” my friend said. “If they were homeless dolphins, this town would be all over it.”
I don’t know if any of you have been really poor, wondered where your next meal was coming from, lived in a squat, a car or an abandoned house, but I have. I don’t enjoy talking about those days and can’t help but remember them. Life was hard. People were kind to me. Grace is real. To this day, the experience, as they say up at the university, informs my thinking. I could laugh at my friend’s comment because, for a while, I swam among the not-dolphins. It’s not a pretty life, but I can attest that everyone I met was an honest-to-God human being, and no matter what demons they were battling, somewhere inside every last one was a person who wanted a better life.
As important as it is to talk about the awful state of income disparity, I dread the results it has engendered among those defending greed and the myth of heroic self-reliance. It’s hard to stay connected without every day hearing some blowhard disparaging the poor and unemployed as lazy deadbeats living off the rest of us. It’s such easy politics, easy us-versus-them stuff.
Ronald “Morning in America” Reagan, who was president during the last great economic downturn, was a master at this. Tales of welfare fraud were among the red meat he tossed about in his first run for the presidency in 1976. In a country where most of the people receiving government support belonged to white, working poor families, he made the black, Cadillac-driving welfare queen public enemy number one.
In the race to the rhetorical bottom that seems to mark political discourse these days, candidates and commentators have moved beyond Reagan’s infamous welfare royalty to those grubby little poor kids who think they’re entitled to a decent meal at school.
I checked and, actually, they are, and have been since the passage of the National School Lunch Act in 1946. And get this: Disadvantaged children are also entitled to a have a “fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.” So entitled, in fact, that the law spelling that out is even called Title I. It was passed in 1965.
Both of these laws were passed during times of deep partisan division by people who managed to rise above their disagreements to do the right thing. How we got to where such things seem impossible and beating up on poor kids is politically advantageous is beyond me.
After a decade in which millions more children have fallen into poverty, using their misfortune to win a few votes is a particularly contemptible tactic. Instead of addressing the cause — an economy that is enriching the few while the many slip farther behind — it’s easier to build a straw man, to quibble over the definition of poverty, to point out that poor people have cell phones and televisions or suggest that maybe those poor kids in neighborhoods with sky-high unemployment rates ought to just get a job.
Maybe once the primary season is over the rhetoric will move a little closer to reality, but don’t hold your breath.
Meanwhile, there’s a daunting task ahead of us in the delivery of compassion to those who need it most.
Nearly half of the 2.3 million children in this state are in low-income families, with nearly one-quarter in families that make below the federal poverty level of about $22,000 a year for a family of four. That’s 15 bucks a day or less per person for everything — food, rent, clothes, transportation, hopes, dreams and so on.
Today was another morning in America in which a lot of people woke up hungry, cold or both. Many are little kids. It’s all they’ve known, and it’s not their fault. You should do something about that.
It’s the season of giving. Please give a lot. The dolphins will love you for it.
Essay Two: Scenes from a Poverty Tour I
(Originally published in The Carrboro Citizen on January 26, 2012)
On this trip, truth was much easier to find than hope. The bus carrying participants in the NAACP-sponsored Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty in North Carolina took us to places where you’d have to try pretty hard to ignore what a struggle it is to survive. The tour’s dozen or so stops scattered along a loop of our northeastern counties are places with long-term, crushing, systemic poverty — places that are now reeling hard from the effects of the Great Recession and a safety net too threadbare to hold the weight asked of it. There’s hope to be found, but it’s worn down by generations of trials and the exceptionally cruel downdraft of the past several years.
We have our own poverty challenges here in Orange County, and there are places not far from where you’re reading this where straits are just as desperate. But we have some things going for us here that are in short supply elsewhere. We’ve a plan and we have resources. Of course there are never as many resources as we’d like, but relative to our brothers and sisters out east, we are especially blessed.
The tour wasn’t about resources or programs or even solutions. It was about putting a face on poverty, about reminding us of what happens when the poor become invisible; about what happens when we accept widespread poverty as normal and then something comes along that makes it all far worse that we can imagine.
‘On the Solid Foundation’
A few blocks in from the historic waterfront in Elizabeth City, Tony Rice, pastor of New Beginning United Fellowship Church, waited on the porch steps of New Beginning, a men’s shelter in a modest two-story home. With him was a group of five residents of the shelter along with a few supporters. You wouldn’t know it was a shelter except for the sign in front, which includes the house slogan “On the Solid Foundation.”
Rice used to work in corrections. He said almost all of the prisoners he met wouldn’t have done what they did if they’d had food to eat, clothes on their backs and a place to call home.
“Poverty,” he said, “is a poison.”
Inside, the group had just finished dinner and the house smelled of food. Behind the dinner table was a handmade poster showing the barriers each ex-con faces and the two roads ahead — one to a better life (Restoration Drive) and one back to incarceration (Familiar Lane). The better life is defined like this: “Employed, Drug Free, Restored Self Esteem, Restored Family Relationship, Positive Outlook on Life.”
As we walked through the place, a neighbor stopped by to assure us the place was well kept and the residents well behaved.
At the first stop in each county we’d get a fact sheet from the N.C. Justice Center with the area’s poverty statistics. The tour’s focus was on faces and not statistics, yet each time you read one was like a kick in the gut. In Pasquotank County, 23 percent of the people are living below the federal poverty line of $22,314 for a family of four. Unemployment in Elizabeth City is around 15 percent on average and even greater if you’re black or Latino. Rice told us that if you have a record, particularly a felony conviction, it’s nearly impossible to find work.
From the porch of New Beginning, the men who lived there talked of losing families, fighting addiction and hopelessness and finding almost nowhere to turn even when they wanted to rise above life in the shadows. The tour wasn’t supposed to be about numbers, but Rice relayed some too piercing to ignore.
Seven people were housed at the shelter — seven, out of an estimated 1,000 homeless people in the area, who found somewhere to go to start a better life.
“I turn away 15 to 20 guys a night,” Rice said. New Beginning is the only men’s shelter for 100 miles.
Rice is a big man, a veteran who served in the 82nd Airborne. He said when he got out of the service, he soon realized how much Elizabeth City had deteriorated over the past decade. People were going without electricity and living in places not fit to live in.
“I didn’t realize the real war was in my backyard,” he said.
He struggled with what to do.
After discovering that an unemployed bricklayer named Arthur Bonds was sleeping in an abandoned house behind his car lot, Rice said the two struck up a friendship and Rice started checking in on Bonds, who had a variety of ailments.
One day Bonds told Rice he was going to check himself into the hospital for warmth and food. A week went by, Rice said, and no sign of Mr. Bonds.
He finally went up to the abandoned house, and as he started into one room, he saw Bonds’ legs and thought he was sleeping. He wasn’t. He’d died cold and alone.
Rice said he decided then he had to act, and after talking it over with his wife, they converted their rental house into an emergency shelter. It doesn’t house a lot of people, Rice said, but even if it helps one person get their life back, it’s worth it.
“We’ve got to rise up and make a difference,” he said.
Essay Three: Scenes from a Poverty Tour II
(Originally Published in The Carrboro Citizen on February 2, 2012)
The bus rolled out of Raleigh about dawn heading east to Washington, or, if you’d rather, Little Washington. Some of us — students, community leaders and organizers; a few lawyers; some press; and several reverends – were still shaking off an early-morning start.
Bishop Gene Hatley was at the wheel as we paralleled the Tar River through Wilson and Greenville into sound country. Along the way, each town got a little smaller and the spaces between them sparser.
We got to Washington, our first stop, around 10 a.m. and rode to the heart of town to a gathering at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a church founded in the waning days of the Civil War and now located in a brick-and-wood jewel built by former slaves and their children in 1902. The church’s official history includes this description:
“Metropolitan was not left untouched by the Depression, however. Terrorist groups pitted poor Whites against poor Blacks. But the members of Metropolitan continued caring for one another. Landowners who owned small businesses and farmed would share their food with poorer families. Church members worked to continue the academic, spiritual, and material growth of the children. This self-reliance and hard work were the keys to getting Metropolitan through the Depression.”
Today in Beaufort County, almost 10,000 of its 50,000 residents live below the poverty line. During the recent recession, the number of people on food assistance has skyrocketed from 6,185 in September 2007 to 17,172 as of September 2011. (Even so, Beaufort County would be one of the better-off places we would visit on the tour.)
With the community hit hard by the recession, the church, led by Rev. David Moore, is a refuge once more for a growing number of neighbors. Volunteers prepare daily meals for the hungry and have set up an emergency shelter.
It had gotten down below freezing the night before we arrived and around 20 people who had nowhere to go in a town whose motto is “Pride in the past, faith in the future” spent the night in the Metropolitan’s basement.
Upstairs that morning, in a sanctuary lit by the January sun streaming through ancient panels of stained glass, we heard the first round of stories that for the next two days would be eerily similar — stories of lifelong struggles against the odds and what little was built or saved lost because of a storm or a battle with an illness or an employer shutting down.
Those who stood up to tell their stories were not the caricatures drawn of the poor, but the real poor, the invisible poor.
Charlette Blackwell Clark, who cleans houses for a living and lives in a storm-damaged trailer she cannot afford to fix, said she is “tired of struggling, tired of being beaten down.”
Like so many, she is being turned away or put on long waiting lists to get some assistance to pay for the repairs. She might, as she puts it, “talk country,” but she understands the consequences of budget cuts in housing-assistance programs in a way no policy analysts can feel. This is her home, and she doesn’t want to leave.
“Let me get on my feet right here in Washington,” she said. “I’ll strive to do whatever I have to do.”
There were people like Charlette, real fighters, at each gathering. And there was almost always someone — often a veteran — who retuned home, saw things through new eyes and pondered the chasm between this nation’s words and our deeds.
Waylon Whitley, from the small Beaufort County community of Pantego, was one of them. He stood at the lectern at the Metropolitan and told us of returning home and beginning a 21-year fight to get sewer service and decent drinking water for his community.
Pantego is one of those places where the lack of infrastructure is a legacy of racial inequality, where black neighborhoods with no services are surrounded by white neighborhoods that have long had them.
Whitley said that when he started the fight for services in 1985, his community was living in third-world conditions. Changing that wasn’t just a question of finding money for the infrastructure, but battling an entrenched political system and an attitude among too many that nothing could be done to change things. It’s a message he continues to preach.
“We owe it to ourselves to insert ourselves in the situation and make it better.”
Essay Four: Scenes from a Poverty Tour III
(Originally Published in The Carrboro Citizen on February 9, 2012)
The poverty line is just a measure, another number in an array of what Gene Nichol, director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, refers to as “bloodless statistics.”
Once again for the record, congress set the 2011 poverty level at $22,314 for a family of four. It’s a flat rate across the country and doesn’t take into account differences in the cost of living from place to place.
Last August, the North Carolina Justice Center released a study establishing a Living Income Standard — what it really costs to keep a household going, taking into account things the federal poverty level, which focuses on the basics, does not. The report breaks down costs in each county in the state for housing, food, child care, health care, transportation, payroll and income taxes and necessities like phone service, clothing and school supplies.
Here in Orange County, high child-care and housing costs push us into the top tier with a Living Income Standard of $55,468 for a family with two adults and two kids. The statewide average for that same family was estimated at $48,814.
But you can’t do poverty by the numbers. Numbers don’t tell what it takes to survive or what it means to grow up in areas wracked by generations of sustained poverty. You hear someone like Bunny Saunders, mayor of the little Washington County town of Roper, say that about a third of those in the area live below the poverty line, or listen to a county director of social services talk about managing less state support in a place where the number of food stamp recipients has all but doubled in three years, and you can’t help but wonder how it is that so many thousands of people can get by on so little.
Meanwhile, opportunities for work in a place where they have almost always been in short supply are dwindling, especially outside the larger towns.
Residents from Roper and Winton, way up in northern Hertford County, talked about the departure of manufacturing, how the small textile shops had disappeared and how agriculture turned to agribusiness and shut out the small family farmer. Now most of what jobs exist are an expensive commute away across the border in Virginia. These are the places where the challenges of poverty are the greatest, not because those in poverty here in Orange County are any less affected, but because the routes out of poverty there are far fewer and much more difficult to navigate.
We can preach education, but the young people in Roper and Winton know that even if they get into Carolina or some other fine college, they won’t find sufficient work upon returning home. We’ve talked for years about distance education and rural broadband, but in the very places where they could have the greatest impact, too many homes and classrooms remain unconnected.
Of course, the biggest roadblock of all is indifference from the rest of us.
As you may have heard, the unemployment rate dropped last month. The bloodless numbers on the economy will probably continue to get rosier as we head toward November’s election. That would be welcome news of course, but unless something changes, the recovery in this state will be felt least in the places that need it the most. My fear is that as things get more comfortable here in the Triangle, we’ll forget about the small towns and crossroad communities to our east and repeat the mistake of again accepting levels of poverty there as unchangeable.
At each stop we made on the tour, NAACP president Rev. William Barber would talk about the awful blindness we have when it comes to poverty, that we’re able to accept it, in part because we can’t put a face to it.
He’d close each sermon with a certain Franciscan blessing, the one calling on God to bless us with discomfort at easy answers and half-truths, anger at injustice and oppression and tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection and starvation.
The last line goes like this: “May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.”
Essay Five: Poverty in the Land of Plenty
It’s not hard to understand why times are tough in places like Rocky Mount, Elizabeth City and the small towns and crossroads in between that have struggled for years. One look at long-term poverty rates, unemployment rates, food assistance or about any other measure, and the counties in the northeast corner of our state jump out at you.
But run your finger down the most recent list of North Carolina counties with the highest number of citizens living in poverty and it won’t take long before you get to Orange County. That’s what I don’t understand.
We talk about it here more than people in most places do. We have resources here. We have a community with a long history of compassion and a wealth of dedicated volunteers. We have organizations — public, private and secular — dedicated to serving those in need.
And yet we sit in the top tier, with one out of every five citizens living below the poverty line. Only Roberson, Wilson, Wilkes, Rowan, Pitt, Gaston and Cleveland counties have higher poverty rates than Orange County. According to a recent study by the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, the number of people living in poverty in this county jumped 42 percent between 2007 and 2010.
When you start getting deeper into the numbers, breaking them down by age or race or family structure, they look even worse. They’re shameful, in fact, especially when it comes to children.
The numbers match up with what you hear from teachers and social workers and people on the front lines of assistance: There are hundreds of hungry children in Orange County, maybe thousands.
One of the most powerful moments I witnessed during the tour of the high-poverty counties to our east was when a man who runs a boxing club for kids in Elizabeth City stood up at a forum to talk about the hungry children he encounters and the impact of hunger over time to a young person’s body and soul. He was followed by the head of the local Smart Start agency, who described the link between obesity driven by poor and inadequate diets to early onset puberty and a rise in teen pregnancy.
“The symptoms of poverty,” he said, “are blowing us apart.”
I’m not sure exactly how Orange County got to where it is. Like I said above, we’ve got resources, and not just financial, but agricultural as well. Amid such abundance, it just doesn’t make sense that kids should go hungry here. I’m not sure how to solve all the symptoms of poverty, but feeding children in need healthy meals ought to be something we can pull off.
The more I’ve looked at the impacts of poverty, the more convinced I’ve become of the danger in ignoring its recent rise in our community.
In the coming months, as the political season starts up, we’re going to hear a lot of talk in the commissioner races about taxes and the need to tighten our belts. School will be a big topic, as will growth and environmental concerns. But we’ll probably hear very little about this county’s growing ranks of people in poverty.
Over the past few years, as the recession deepened, budgets tightened and we cut deep into a lot of programs that serve people in need and work to prevent those on the margins from sliding deeper into poverty. We need to question whether continuing to underfund those services makes any sense.
The cuts make services harder to get at a time when the demand for them is going up. That means more of our neighbors who need health care or food or refuge will be turned away at those crucial make-or-break moments. The cruel reality is that the farther you fall, the harder it becomes to battle your way back.
We have to face up to this challenge, and that starts with being honest with ourselves.