DURHAM — Poverty, and its elimination, was the dominant theme in Mayor Bill Bell’s annual “State of the City” address Monday night.
“It is time that we as a community come together to do something about this affliction that directly or indirectly affects us all,” Bell said.
He called for officials and residents to “make it a key priority to reduce poverty, neighborhood by neighborhood, year by year, starting in 2014.”
The speech, delivered before the City Council’s regular meeting, got a standing ovation from a less-than-capacity crowd in the council chamber.
The mayor praised resident-driven projects already attacking Durham poverty but said he wanted to use his office “to raise the visibility of poverty in Durham.”
Bell cited statistics that show 21.3 percent of Durham residents live in poverty, and so are forced to choose, he said, between paying for food, housing, medicine or other necessities.
“Those are choices no one should have to make in our society, especially in Durham,” Bell said. “Many of our poor neighbors live ... just blocks from the most prosperous areas of our city.”
In the area around Durham Technical Community College, he said, more than half of residents are impoverished, including eight of every 10 children.
He related poverty to two priorities set out in previous State of the City speeches: crime reduction and neighborhood revitalization.
A ‘can-do attitude’
Poverty and its associated ills, such as unemployment and poor health care, “help determine whether or not we have a safe and secure community and thriving, livable neighborhoods,” he said.
He singled out the disproportionate rates of young black men working low-paying jobs, dropping out of school and having criminal records. Only about half of Durham’s youth graduate high school, go to college and get a job by the time they are 25 years old, he said.
“They represent a source of workforce skills, civic participation and taxpayer revenue that Durham can ill afford to waste,” Bell said.
Revitalizing downtown and the long-depressed Southside neighborhood through public-private collaboration have created a “can-do attitude” in Durham.
“Now is the time to take those same steps…to address those among us who have the least,” he said.
“We as a city and county are rich in many resources,” Bell said. “We have great universities, home to the Research Triangle Park, many talented persons, a city classified as a creative city, with many entrepreneurs, innovators and more. We must find a way to harness those (for) the reduction in poverty.”