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BIG CITY: Poverty in the land of plenty

By Kirk Ross

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

It’s not hard to understand why times are tough in places like Rocky Mount, Elizabeth City and the small towns and crossroads in between that have struggled for years. One look at long-term poverty rates, unemployment rates, food assistance or about any other measure, and the counties in the northeast corner of our state jump out at you.

But run your finger down the most recent list of North Carolina counties with the highest number of citizens living in poverty and it won’t take long before you get to Orange County. That’s what I don’t understand.

We talk about it here more than people in most places do. We have resources here. We have a community with a long history of compassion and a wealth of dedicated volunteers. We have organizations – public, private and secular – dedicated to serving those in need.

And yet we sit in the top tier, with one out of every five citizens living below the poverty line. Only Roberson, Wilson, Wilkes, Rowan, Pitt, Gaston and Cleveland counties have higher poverty rates than Orange County. According to a recent study by the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, the number of people living in poverty in this county jumped 42 percent between 2007 and 2010.

When you start getting deeper into the numbers, breaking them down by age or race or family structure, they look even worse. They’re shameful, in fact, especially when it comes to children.

The numbers match up with what you hear from teachers and social workers and people on the front lines of assistance: There are hundreds of hungry children in Orange County, maybe thousands.

One of the most powerful moments I witnessed during the tour of the high-poverty counties to our east was when a man who runs a boxing club for kids in Elizabeth City stood up at a forum to talk about the hungry children he encounters and the impact of hunger over time to a young person’s body and soul. He was followed by the head of the local Smart Start agency, who described the link between obesity driven by poor and inadequate diets to early onset puberty and a rise in teen pregnancy.

“The symptoms of poverty,” he said, “are blowing us apart.”

I’m not sure exactly how Orange County got to where it is. Like I said above, we’ve got resources, and not just financial, but agricultural as well. Amid such abundance, it just doesn’t make sense that kids should go hungry here. I’m not sure how to solve all the symptoms of poverty, but feeding children in need healthy meals ought to be something we can pull off.
The more I’ve looked at the impacts of poverty, the more convinced I’ve become of the danger in ignoring its recent rise in our community.

In the coming months, as the political season starts up, we’re going to hear a lot of talk in the commissioner races about taxes and the need to tighten our belts. School will be a big topic, as will growth and environmental concerns. But we’ll probably hear very little about this county’s growing ranks of people in poverty.

Over the past few years, as the recession deepened, budgets tightened and we cut deep into a lot of programs that serve people in need and work to prevent those on the margins from sliding deeper into poverty. We need to question whether continuing to underfund those services makes any sense.

The cuts make services harder to get at a time when the demand for them is going up. That means more of our neighbors who need health care or food or refuge will be turned away at those crucial make-or-break moments. The cruel reality is that the farther you fall, the harder it becomes to battle your way back.

We have to face up to this challenge, and that starts with being honest with ourselves.

  1. Mia Burroughs

    School folks know that an unquantified number of our children receive only two meals a day: school breakfast and school lunch. The obvious gaps are dinner, weekends and holidays. The CHCCS Board continues to subsidize our “child nutrition” budget to the tune of over $200,000 annually because it is the right thing do for kids generally and because hungry people can’t learn.