There’s the image this community maintains, and then there’s the reality. The two are often in conflict, but never more so than when it comes to attitudes about poverty.
That’s when this hip, edgy, big-hearted community slowly closes the blinds and turns away. And that’s the shame of it. Because if there’s one thing we ought to be able to do with all the brains and guts and love in this place, it’s move the needle – and in a big way – on poverty.
We’re not and, in fact, we’re losing ground.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel of local and state leaders on the subject for WCHL’s annual community forum. At the outset, I asked them what were the challenges they saw that seemed almost unsurmountable, the ones they took home at night, the problems we have here in Orange County that are the most troublesome.
As widespread as the panel members experience is, their answers sounded strikingly similar.
The take away from the discussion was that too many eyes are closed to poverty in this county, too many working people are making too little to get by and that social services, food banks and other organizations are seeing an increase in need rather than a decrease despite that wonderful economic comeback we keep hearing about.
The first two points, that poverty is routinely ignored and wages for those in the lower income levels stagnant, are not a surprise, but the fact that the needs are on the rise even as the economy recovers ought to stop you in your tracks.
Something is very wrong if more people are using the local food pantry and community kitchen than ever before and the number of people seeking help from county agencies has gone up 70 percent after the end of the Great Recession.
It means that like a lot of places in this state, for a huge swath of the population the economic recovery is just a bunch of meaningless numbers. It should be no comfort to anyone that the unemployment rate is going down if along with it the number of people in need is going up.
The recovery has allowed us to return to that nasty habit of ignoring poverty, even that next door. As one panelist noted, people see their 401K coming back or things looking better at work and think the same is happening throughout the economy.
But it’s not and that should be troubling, especially in a county that is very rich and very poor and hollowing out in the middle at a heck of a rate.
If you’re looking for North Carolina’s poster child for income inequality look no further than Orange County. There aren’t many other ways to explain both a high rate of poverty, about the state average, and the state’s highest median income.
People like to point to the student population as a cause, but of those that are counted – the figures look at only at the off-campus population – most are grad students or researchers and most are working. They, too, are terribly underpaid.
And no equation that says the students skew the numbers accounts for a child poverty rate approaching 25 percent. That’s about the state average as well and both are unacceptable.
We have a lot of good people in this community in and out of public service who are working to change this grim reality. But they need our support, our contributions and most importantly, our attention.
The only thing worse than a crisis is a silent crisis.
Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org