It is common to think of N.C. poverty on a rural-urban axis. We’ve become a state, the narrative goes, of booming, economically vibrant, metropolitan centers accompanied by, in too many instances, struggling, chronically poor rural communities.
The traditional portrait is accurate, far as it goes. Per capita income is markedly higher in urban counties. Wealth is decidedly greater. Poverty and unemployment rates, in general, are more elevated in rural ones. But averages can be deceiving.
When scholars have drilled down, beyond city or countywide statistics, to individual census tracts and neighborhoods, a different portrait emerges. Distressed urban tracts experience even higher levels of poverty, child poverty, unemployment – and lower income and graduation rates – than their rural counterparts. Surprisingly, the poorest parts of North Carolina are located in Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem and Greensboro. And Charlotte, on many fronts our richest city, produces the stoutest dichotomy.
Census Bureau data recently revealed that, over the last dozen years, Charlotte experienced the nation’s sixth steepest increase in concentrated poverty – neighborhoods where over 20 percent live in poverty. In 2000, one in 10 Mecklenburg County citizens lived in such communities. By 2010, it was one in four. Four of North Carolina’s six most severely distressed neighborhoods are found in Charlotte – Lockwood, University City South, Grier Heights and Capitol Drive/Jackson Blvd.
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The Urban Institute, which tracks affordable housing nationally, determined Mecklenburg County had the tenth largest reduction in the number of available housing units for very low-income residents, per 100 renters, from 2000-2012. While broad swaths prosper, in other words, many struggle mightily. And they are increasingly thrown together in more and more challenging circumstances.
Concentrated poverty is not just an issue of aesthetics. Poverty is tough. Ample research now demonstrates that living amidst concentrated poverty is a good deal tougher. In such neighborhoods, the poor have to cope not only with the challenges of their own deprivation, but also with that of those around them. Unsafe neighborhoods, cratered property values, substandard housing, foreclosures, failing schools, sparse transportation, inadequate private and non-profit resources, isolation from commercial opportunities and services, diminished community assets, and hope, often pervade.
High poverty areas exact an additional toll on their residents, beyond the burdens visited on the individual households within them. As the Federal Reserve has explained: “there is a double burden imposed on poor families living in extremely poor communities.” The clients and volunteers of Crisis Assistance Ministry, whom we have interviewed in recent months, know the impacts of the added burden first hand.
Yolanda Alexander explains that, in her neighborhood, “we have a lot of young men and they have no outlet, so they are hurting each other.” There is “nothing for them to do, no jobs, no community centers, no programs for teenagers.” If “my son goes out with the kids he sees, he’s getting in trouble.” There is “no transportation where you can hop on a bus to get somewhere, you have to be prepared to walk a mile to the bus stop.”
Rebecca echoes: “There is nothing but bad stuff for them to do … when they get 12 or 13 there are summer camps, but no one I know can afford them.” The “kids learn from what they see and what surrounds them.” Cynthia adds, the “church I go to is in Grier Heights and it’s a very tough neighborhood, it seems like every week” someone is killed. “We always have flowers on Sundays, left over from the funerals.”
Katie reports her community “is terrible” – there are “a lot of men who work real hard, but they like to get really drunk… I can’t leave my children outside because it’s not safe.” Sometimes, “I call the police but that causes bad feelings and can make things worse.” You can feel like a prisoner when you can’t afford to move somewhere else.
These are folks who work hard. Often at more than one job. It is impossible to capture their commitment to their families. Yolanda reveals, “for me, independence means being able to take care of my kids, being there for them is all that matters.” It’s the “only thing I ever think about.” Leitha concedes the stress is enormous, but “I have my daughter and my little granddaughter, they need me, I teach them what matters – respect, honesty, simplicity, faith.” That’s “what I’m put here for.”
Last month the Pew Research Center released a poll finding a majority of wealthy Americans believe “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.” It can be a great comfort to ignore the facts.