Opinion Columns & Blogs

February 27, 2014

Metro mayors to talk about their urban poor

The mayors of North Carolina’s 27 largest cities are in Charlotte Friday to talk about economic development and poverty. They may talk about much more at this gathering of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, a group that has been getting together officially since 2001 to strategize on tackling interests common to N.C. municipalities with populations over 30,000. But those two topics, closely linked and of pressing concern, will likely get the lion’s share of attention.

The mayors of North Carolina’s 27 largest cities are in Charlotte Friday to talk about economic development and poverty. They may talk about much more at this gathering of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, a group that has been getting together officially since 2001 to strategize on tackling interests common to N.C. municipalities with populations over 30,000. But those two topics, closely linked and of pressing concern, will likely get the lion’s share of attention.

A lunch-time panel discussion moderated by Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon, called “Urban Economic Development Done Right: Charlotte Case Study,” will feature city and business leaders. And the group is releasing a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill report on distressed urban census tracts.

Julie White, executive director and lobbyist for the mayors coalition, tells me that in the five years she has worked for the coalition, the group has successfully focused attention and pushed proposals to tackle the needs of the state’s metro areas, where 81 percent of the state’s economic output is produced. On legislative matters, the group counts as successes laws to tackle gang problems, reforms to make state transportation funding more equitable, and policies to meet transit and rail needs.

They’ll have their work cut out for them to effectively address what too often hides beneath the affluence of many cities – the deep distress that many of their constituents are living in. White puts it this way: the prosperity of N.C. cities “masks pockets of distress.”

The report, from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, points out that 20 of the 25 most economically distressed census tracts in North Carolina are in the state’s urban areas. The 2010 U.S. Census designated 18 areas as urban in North Carolina, and the UNC report says each of those urban areas contains at least one distressed census tract. Of the 162 severely distressed N.C. census tracts, 106 were in urban areas. A tract is defined as distressed when it has a combination of high poverty, low per capita income, and high unemployment.

I’ve written about this before, so it comes as no surprise. A report last year by the UNC Poverty Center showed similar results. The problem in Charlotte is significant. Charlotte is one of five urban areas with the most intense, deep poverty in the state. Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem are the others. Two-thirds of the state’s concentrated poverty census tracts are in urban areas. Charlotte and Greensboro have the largest shares of that poverty.

In this city of enormous 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.

And poverty is growing here. In 2000, Mecklenburg had 16 tracts of deep poverty. By 2010, that number had zoomed to 26. The average poverty rate for Mecklenburg’s distressed areas was 41 percent; the average child poverty rate was 54 percent. But even those numbers masked the deep distress of specific areas. Ten of those tracts had child poverty rates above 60 percent; five were above 70 percent; one, an area northeast on Tryon Street about a mile from the heart of uptown Charlotte, had a rate that was 90.1 percent. In some communities, just half of the residents graduated from high school. In 12 of the distressed areas, single mothers headed the majority of the households.

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, chair of the N.C. Metro Mayors, said in a statement that “Cities have been grappling with pockets of slow or stagnant economic recovery in neighborhoods that leave significant numbers of citizens struggling in poverty. Further study is needed to better understand and identify needs within the urban pockets of poverty... It’s important that we develop targeted strategies to expand economic opportunities to all distressed areas, both rural and metro, to ensure all citizens living in poverty are being provided equal opportunities to improve their economic outlook.”

She’s right. This report gives some clues as to what’s needed: better transportation options for low-income people to get to jobs; more and better education to qualify for better paying jobs; more good-paying jobs; more access to and promotion of family planning services.

It’s good that the mayors are working on ways to tackle this issue. The rest of us need to help them do so.

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