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Poor and struggling in Charlotte

The Moral Monday protests against a multitude of wrong-headed and regressive laws the N.C. legislature passed this past session come to Charlotte this Monday. The protest will focus needed attention on the impact of those changes on the most vulnerable – the poor.

For many here in one of this state’s wealthiest regions, the challenges of the poor might seem like a distant concern. But at Monday’s rally, Gene Nichol, director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, will provide some eye-opening statistics that should change a lot of minds.

Consider:

In this city of bankers and others of affluence, 64,000 people live on an income that’s roughly $11,500 a year for a family of four. That’s considered extreme poverty. In all, more than 140,000 Mecklenburg County residents – 15.6 percent of the county’s population – live in poverty.

Worse, a good chunk of the poor are children. Twenty-two percent of Mecklenburg’s children live in poverty, and an astounding 40 percent of its children of color are poor.

The center’s research says Charlotte area is one of five urban areas with “the most intense, deep poverty” in the state – Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem are the others. Today, two-thirds of the state’s concentrated poverty Census tracts are in urban rather than rural areas, Nichol notes. Mecklenburg and Greensboro have the largest shares of that poverty. In 2000, Mecklenburg had 16 tracts of deep poverty. By 2010, that number had zoomed to 26.

This is not news to Beverly Howard, executive director of Loaves and Fishes, which provides food to people in need. “Our numbers have risen substantially,” she said. “And they keep growing.”

Among those most in need? Children. “Of the 126,000 (we feed), 48 percent are children,” she said.

Yet, in a community of affluence like ours, “hunger is an invisible problem,” Howard said. “I tell people the hungry could be the child next to your child on the school bus, the person who cleans your office, the person who works at the lunch counter.”

Crisis Assistance Ministry’s Raquel Lynch says the UNC center’s statistics are consistent with what her agency sees. “We’re seeing people who never thought they’d seek assistance. These are people who have used up all their savings, have gotten all the help they can get from friends. They’re in sheer desperation,” she said.

Those struggling are teacher assistants, mortgage workers, construction people, even bank employees.

The “magnitude of need” has been surprising, said Lynch. And she says it’s not abating.

“Families are struggling,” she said. They’re struggling to keep the lights on in the house and to keep the water on to bathe the kids, to keep a roof over their heads, she added.

And “plenty of these are working families,” she said. But they’re not earning enough to make ends meet. Others are people who want to work but haven’t been able to find a job, notes Howard. Too many are middle-income people who’ve become low-income after a job loss and a pay cut.

What can be done? Lynch suggests a focus on three key areas: education, workforce development and health care. Education leads to better jobs, lack of health care is a barrier to stable families, and good-paying jobs are essential to family stability, she says. “Policies should focus on those areas,” Lynch notes.

Howard agrees but also says the state government “must allocate enough resources” to help meet needs. “There’s a big misconception that churches and nonprofits can feed everyone. But the reality is that for 24 bags of food assistance, one comes from churches and nonprofits. The others come from government aid.”

Individuals too can help by educating themselves about community needs, the policies that affect them, and donating time, food and money, Howard and Lynch said.

These are good suggestions. First, though, all of us must stop ignoring those struggling among us. They and their needs are invisible only if we allow them to be. We must push policymakers to help and not further hobble those in economic distress. And we must commit to working harder ourselves to foster an environment in which all community members can thrive. It’s the right thing to do for them but the rest of us will benefit too.

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