Parts of Durham prosper but poverty persists, people left behind

jwise@newsobserver.comJanuary 1, 2014 


Living in a shack in the woods off of Hope Valley Road in Durham, Gary "Dawg" Faw, right, and Joseph "Heavy" Walter are checked on by Housing for New Hope PATH outreach team members Sherman Thompson, left, and registered nurse Marigny Manson on Tuesday, November 15, 2011. Many hardcore homeless people are reluctant to come to "official" sites for medical care, food and shelter. So several days a week teams from the local non-profit Housing for New Hope go look for them.

SHAWN ROCCO — srocco@newsobserver.com

  • Persistent poverty

    Durham’s 19.4 percent poverty rate is higher than Raleigh’s 16.3 percent, Cary’s 16.6 percent, Charlotte’s 16 percent, Greensboro’s 18.8 percent and the state’s overall rate of 16.8 percent ( 1.usa.gov/1ioCEyQ). All are above the Census Bureau’s national average of 14.9 percent.

    The bureau estimates Durham County’s poverty rate to be 18 percent, continuing an upward trend. The county’s rate fell from 29.6 percent in 1960 to 11.9 percent in 1990, then rose to 13.4 percent in 2000. The state’s rate, though, has continued to fall, from 40.6 percent in 1960 to 12.3 percent in 2010, while the national rate fell from 22.1 percent in 1960 to 12.4 percent in 2010 ( 1.usa.gov/1cfkbjn).

— Among the city’s 230,000 or so residents, there are those who have never heard Durham called the “Tastiest Town in the South” or care about its ratings as an “Up and Coming City for Entrepreneurs” or among the “Top 10 Small American Cities of the Future.”

For some of those Durham residents, their hometown’s distinction by Money Under 30 as the third-best place in the country to be young, single and broke might just come across as a bad joke.

For them, life in Durham is about how to pay the rent, where next week’s groceries are coming from and how to get to work, if they have work. Those people are, according to the U.S. Census Bureau ( 1.usa.gov/1hFcrJq), the 19.4 percent of Durham’s population who live in poverty.

That’s approximately 44,600 people, and indications are their numbers are going up even as their city enjoys a bright new image for innovation, tolerance and overall hip-ness. Poverty is a fact of life in Durham that has endured from the Cigarette City era through the City of Medicine days into the epoch when, as city leaders like to say, Good Things Are Happening.

The terms “poor,” “low income,” “distressed” vary in meaning depending on who is using the term and how the counting was done.

Here’s one indicative number: 65. That’s the percentage of Durham Public Schools pupils who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. In real terms, that’s more than 21,000 children whose preparation for the future is more than mastering algebra and the periodic table.

“Children who come from impoverished homes simply have many more things to worry about than other kids do,” said DPS spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson. “They may come to us hungry, or under-dressed for cold weather. They could come to us homeless, uncertain of where they will sleep that night.

“The least important thing on their minds may be their homework, grades or academic achievements. Yet we know clearly that the path out of poverty runs straight through our schools.”

10 years’ difference

One reason for the apparent rise of poverty in the Durham Public Schools population could be a shift of more affluent children to charter and private schools. But other measures also show need is on the rise in the city and Durham County.

In 2005, University of North Carolina researchers Allen Serkin and Stephen Whitlow published a study, “The State of North Carolina’s Urban Distressed Communities” ( bit.ly/1diq6oL). Using 2000 U.S. Census data, they found eight Durham census tracts that met their definition of “distressed”:

•  An unemployment rate greater than or equal to 150 percent of the Jan. 1, 2000, state unemployment rate of 3.4 percent;

•  Per capita income less than or equal to 67 percent of the North Carolina average per capita income of $20,307 ($26,579 in 2010 dollars);

•  Poverty rate greater than or equal to 150 percent of the North Carolina average poverty rate of 12.3 percent.

All the distressed tracts were inside the city limits: three covering most of Northeast Central Durham, three covering the Southside-Rolling Hills and McDougald Terrace-Burton School area and the other two downtown Durham and the Duke University West Campus and Medical Center.

A 2012 update for Durham and Mecklenburg counties ( bit.ly/1dNoYHT) by UNC law student Alison Templeton, using 2010 Census data, found 13 of 60 Durham census tracts distressed by the Serkin-Whitlow standards.

That was an increase from 15 percent to 22 percent of the county’s tracts in distress.

Templeton found the average rate of poverty in Durham’s distressed areas had risen from 45.6 percent in 2000 to 46.7 percent in 2010; child poverty rose from 48 percent to 55.2 percent; the number of families headed by a single mother rose from 61.4 percent to 66.5 percent. On the other hand, the rate of elderly residents in poverty fell from 37.8 percent to 25.6 percent.

‘Constant concern’

Census data since 1970 shows Durham having the highest poverty rate among the state’s five most urbanized counties (Mecklenburg, Wake, Forsyth, Guilford and Durham).

“Durham remains an attraction for poor people,” said former City Councilman Howard Clement. “People come to Durham from all over ... thinking they’re going to find a welcome center in Durham in terms of jobs, housing, education.” If things don’t work out, Clement said, “They can’t afford to go back.

“It’s a constant concern of many of us in the black community, why … in this sea of plenty there is still this growing poverty rate,” he said.

“It’s a perplexing topic. A lot of really smart people over the years have worked on it,” said Reyn Bowman, retired convention and visitors bureau CEO.

Bowman said Durham’s changing economy has left many residents behind, and local governments have not done enough to bring everyone along.

“We’re going to have to deal with that,” he said. “We can’t just hope that somehow all of us doing well will spill enough in the couch to take care of those that aren’t.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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