It’s common to think of North Carolina poverty on a rural-urban axis. We’ve become a state, the narrative goes, of booming, economically vibrant metropolitan centers accompanied by in many instances struggling, chronically poor rural communities. The traditional portrait is accurate, so far as it goes. Per capita income is markedly higher in urban counties. Poverty and unemployment rates, on average, are elevated in rural ones. Our policy framework, understandably, reflects the divide. What the Department of Commerce designates as “Tier One” counties – the most economically distressed – frequently qualify for more generous subsidies and development incentives. Listed Tier One counties surprise no one: Hoke, Scotland, Robeson, Lenoir, Halifax, Wilson and others in the east. Cherokee, Clay, Swain and the like in the west. Obviously, Wake, Durham, Mecklenburg, Guilford and Forsyth are nowhere to be found. But averages can be deceiving.
A few years ago, Allen Serkin and Stephen Whitlow, young colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied the state’s most highly distressed census tracts – drilling down to neighborhood levels. They found that countywide averages mask deep pockets of poverty in North Carolina’s otherwise prosperous metropolitan centers.
Distressed urban tracts, they concluded, experience even higher levels of poverty, child poverty and unemployment – and lower income and graduation rates – than their rural counterparts. Surprisingly, the poorest parts of North Carolina are smack in the middle of Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
Because much of the Serkin/Whitlow data was pre-recession, students at the Poverty Center this summer updated the examination of economically distressed urban neighborhoods – focusing on Durham and Charlotte. Statewide, concentrated poverty tracts tripled between 2000 and 2010. Two-thirds of the afflicted neighborhoods, the N.C. Justice Center has reported, are now urban.
Durham County’s 13 highly distressed census tracts had an average poverty rate of 46.7 percent, up modestly from a decade ago. But their child poverty rate ballooned from 48 percent to 55.2 percent. Several tracts now show child poverty rates of 80 percent or higher.
Mecklenburg County results were similar. Charlotte’s general poverty rate in distressed areas was 42.3 percent, up from 31 percent. The child poverty rate rose from 38 percent to an astounding 54 percent. This helps explain why the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district reported nearly 5,000 homeless students last year and the U.S. Conference of Mayors concluded Charlotte had the third-steepest increase in family homelessness in America. It’s hard not to wonder whether our Mecklenburg trio – Gov. Pat McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis and state Sen. Bob Rucho – think of these folks as they wage daily war on poor people from Jones Street.
If the numbers were surprising, though, they weren’t news to Raquel Lynch of Crisis Assistance Ministry – the organization started almost 40 years ago by Charlotte churches to provide targeted assistance to help prevent homelessness. Every morning hundreds line up outside the doors, beginning as early as 3 a.m., desperate, as Lynch puts it, “to save the dignity of their homes.”
‘We call it a sin’
When I arrived at 5 on a recent Wednesday morning, a long line already snaked around the building. By 7 a.m., about 200 families were in the queue. They stood, ironically, almost in the shadows of the city’s great banking towers – the bailed out banking towers. All sought to avoid the trauma of the wounded souls living, less than two blocks away, in the sparse woods and under the bridges near 11th Street.
Daniel Valdez, also of Crisis Ministry, explained that the families who seek assistance there are bellwethers.
“They live at the edge of homelessness,” he said. “The crisis hits here before it touches the middle class.”
Lynch adds that those they serve have jobs, or they’ve had them. They aren’t strangers, she says. “They’re at your day care, or they’ve served your dinner, or been your nurse’s assistant.”
Many worked for years, and now they’re struggling and don’t know where to turn, she says. Sometimes, after “they get their footing, they come back and volunteer at the center, to make things better for someone else in that frightened morning line,” Lynch says emotionally.
Camryn and Ernest Smith are co-directors of Neighborhood Allies of Durham. They live and work in the economically distressed community where Jose Ocampo was shot and killed by police two months ago. Despite challenges, Camryn is quick to explain that this is the best place she has ever lived. “There’s a level of strength and perseverance and generosity you don’t see in the suburbs,” she says.
Still, the deprivation is beyond intense. “There are people living in East Durham,” she reports, “without running water or working plumbing; people who can’t afford to feed their kids or get them school supplies or medicine.” And there are kids, Ernest adds, “who don’t know what it’s like to go to a Chick-fil-A, who don’t venture beyond the neighborhood. Isolation keeps possibility out.”
Almost 23,000 Durham residents live in extreme poverty – on incomes of less than $11,5000 for a family of four. In 24 Durham elementary schools (80 percent of the total), over half the kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. At some schools, the figure is over 95 percent. The school district last year reported that about 900 of its students were homeless. Rev. Mel Williams, longtime pastor of Watts Baptist Church and now head of End Poverty Durham, is blunt: “It is dreadful and appalling. In my business, we call it a sin.”
It’s also infuriating, Ernest Smith emphasizes, to listen to the rhetoric of leaders who apparently are not even aware some people don’t have water and power. “They don’t have bootstraps to tug on,” Smith says. The politicians don’t know, he argues, “because they don’t want to know, if you know, you might be thought responsible.” They only “turn to the folks in my neighborhood,” Smith suggests, “when it’s time to blame.”
In late 1967, Martin Luther King described many of America’s urban centers as “little more than domestic colonies that leave inhabitants dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated at every turn.” I suppose we can’t know whether he would say the same thing today. We do know, though, that for hundreds of thousands of urban Tar Heels, Dr. King’s dream has yet to penetrate. It, instead, recedes.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law and director of the schoolâ€™s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity