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Poverty amid Charlotte’s riches

By Mary Irvine
Special to the Observer

In what has been called the nation’s “second financial capital after New York,” sit neighborhoods with perhaps the state’s most intense levels of poverty. In fact, in some areas, harsh, pervasive poverty is not just present, it is the norm. It is here where deprivation abounds, inequality is stark, and the surrounding wealth creates a concerning isolation.

New poverty data released in the past few weeks find 15.9 percent of Mecklenburg residents live in poverty – a figure too high by any measure, but not one that attracts attention when compared to other counties. However, the better-than-average poverty rate masks the deplorable truth. Just blocks from the riches that paint the city skyline are neighborhoods where more people than not are poor.

Using 2000 Census data, UNC researchers Allen Serkin and Stephen Whitlow identified the most highly “distressed” census tracts across the state. A tract was defined as distressed when it had a combination of a high poverty rate, low per capita income, and high unemployment. Serkin and Whitlow found that urban “distressed” tracts had higher levels of poverty, child poverty and unemployment tracts than comparable rural ones. These urban tracts also bore lower graduation rates and income levels.

This summer, students at the UNC Poverty Center updated the research for Mecklenburg County, finding that more than 11 percent of Mecklenburg County Census tracts are distressed. Within the distressed tracts, rates of poverty, child poverty and poverty among single mother headed households have increased markedly since 2000.

Poverty in Charlotte is compounded by the stark contrast of the banking towers that define our image of the city. A two-mile trip southwest on Tryon Street will take you from Tract 1, the heart of downtown with a per capita income of $83,620, to Tract 37, where 58 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level and the per capita income is $12,668. Less than a mile’s walk northeast on Tryon Street from Tract 1 brings you to Tract 52. Home to the highest poverty rate of any census tract in the county at 67 percent, Tract 52 claims a shocking child poverty rate of 90.1 percent and an alarming unemployment rate of 37.4 percent. In short, the distressed areas paint a very different picture of overall economic health than the stories we see about the Queen City on the 5 o’clock news.

Charlotte’s intense poverty is no surprise to Crisis Assistance Ministry’s Advocacy Program Manager Daniel Valdez. Valdez sees families every day who “live at the edge of homelessness.” Many with low wages, wages that could never meet the basic needs of any family, struggle to keep the lights on and pay their rent. “They’re at your daycare, or they’ve served your dinner, or been your nurse’s assistant,” says Raquel Lynch, Director of Strategic Initiatives.

The lack of affordable housing in Charlotte cripples families, forcing them out of homes and onto the street. On any given day, scores of families facing utility shut-offs line up in the early morning hours seeking help from Crisis Assistance Ministry.

Many others arrive desperate to remain in their homes and avoid eviction. Fair market rent in Charlotte stands towering at $793 per month and median rent even higher at $879. With average rents only affordable for those making $14.31 per hour, a figure almost twice the minimum wage, families cannot meet the rising costs.

While some of the poor are able to stay in their homes with assistance from area charities, many are homeless. In January 2013, Charlotte-Mecklenburg reported 2,418 homeless people as part of the yearly point in time count. While this is a slight decrease from last year, homelessness remains 22 percent higher than 2007, when 1,976 individuals were without permanent shelter.

Many sleep under the bridges on 11th Street or in the woods. Living in the shadows of skyscrapers that house Charlotte’s business district, the homeless struggle to survive on next to nothing.

Despite the city’s prosperity, poverty is certainly not hard to find. You can see this poverty each morning, at the door to Crisis Assistance Ministry, where 200 or more people are waiting before 7 a.m., up from the 60 or 70 folks served daily in 2007, each hoping for assistance to keep the lights on and water running. You can also see this poverty at lunchtime at the nearly 26 elementary schools where more than 90 percent of children receive free or reduced lunch. And you can also see it at the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte where approximately 320 homeless individuals sleep each night (even more as the temperatures drop in the coming winter months).

The reality of alarmingly deep urban poverty is concealed by the abundance of a Southern financial center and the dull, unassuming surface-level county-wide poverty rates. The poverty and destitution here in our most prosperous city, when one takes the time to look beneath the surface is poverty so intense it should shock the conscience – and change the way we think of poverty in our state and its richest city.

Mary Irvine is Program Associate at the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.
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