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BIG CITY: Scenes from a poverty tour — Part 3

By Kirk Ross

This is the third in a series of columns on poverty, inspired by a recent North Carolina NAACP-sponsored tour of high-poverty regions of our state.

The poverty line is just a measure, another number in an array of what Gene Nichol, director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, refers to as “bloodless statistics.”
Once again for the record, congress set the 2011 poverty level at $22,314 for a family of four. It’s a flat rate across the country and doesn’t take into account differences in the cost of living from place to place.

Last August, the North Carolina Justice Center released a study establishing a Living Income Standard – what it really costs to keep a household going, taking into account things the federal poverty level, which focuses on the basics, does not. The report breaks down costs in each county in the state for housing, food, child care, health care, transportation, payroll and income taxes and necessities like phone service, clothing and school supplies.

Here in Orange County, high child-care and housing costs push us into the top tier with a Living Income Standard of $55,468 for a family with two adults and two kids. The statewide average for that same family was estimated at $48,814.

But you can’t do poverty by the numbers. Numbers don’t tell what it takes to survive or what it means to grow up in areas wracked by generations of sustained poverty. You hear someone like Bunny Saunders, mayor of the little Washington County town of Roper, say that about a third of those in the area live below the poverty line, or listen to a county director of social services talk about managing less state support in a place where the number of food stamp recipients has all but doubled in three years, and you can’t help but wonder how it is that so many thousands of people can get by on so little.
Meanwhile, opportunities for work in a place where they have almost always been in short supply are dwindling, especially outside the larger towns.

Residents from Roper and Winton, way up in northern Hertford County, talked about the departure of manufacturing, how the small textile shops had disappeared and how agriculture turned to agribusiness and shut out the small family farmer. Now most of what jobs exist are an expensive commute away across the border in Virginia. These are the places where the challenges of poverty are the greatest, not because those in poverty here in Orange County are any less affected, but because the routes out of poverty there are far fewer and much more difficult to navigate.

We can preach education, but the young people in Roper and Winton know that even if they get into Carolina or some other fine college, they won’t find sufficient work upon returning home. We’ve talked for years about distance education and rural broadband, but in the very places where they could have the greatest impact, too many homes and classrooms remain unconnected.

Of course, the biggest roadblock of all is indifference from the rest of us.

As you may have heard, the unemployment rate dropped last month. The bloodless numbers on the economy will probably continue to get rosier as we head toward November’s election. That would be welcome news of course, but unless something changes, the recovery in this state will be felt least in the places that need it the most. My fear is that as things get more comfortable here in the Triangle, we’ll forget about the small towns and crossroad communities to our east and repeat the mistake of again accepting levels of poverty there as unchangeable.

At each stop we made on the tour, NAACP president Rev. William Barber would talk about the awful blindness we have when it comes to poverty, that we’re able to accept it, in part because we can’t put a face to it.

He’d close each sermon with a certain Franciscan blessing, the one calling on God to bless us with discomfort at easy answers and half-truths, anger at injustice and oppression and tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection and starvation.

The last line goes like this: “May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.”


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