The News and Observer, January 13, 2008: Poor among us

Posted on

While folks in Raleigh debate whether to allow mansions to be built on small lots once occupied by more modest homes, and while many people in the affluent communities of North Carolina are still arranging their new Christmas clothes and cashing their bonus checks, many thousands of others are hurting. Sorry about that depressing news, but consider how depressing things must be for the citizens of our state who are living in real poverty — meaning they have not enough to eat, or lack warm clothing, or struggle to pay the rent.

The U.S. Census Bureau says that in 2005, nearly 15 percent of North Carolinians were living in poverty, with people in rural areas and children among those hardest hit. There’s no reason to expect there’s been a dramatic improvement since then. Certainly such findings are disturbing, especially when one considers that in the 1990s, almost 50,000 people were added to the poverty rolls. (That’s from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center.)

Eastern North Carolina, where traditional industries have been ravaged and economic development has been slow to develop, has some of the largest pockets of poverty. Some counties are at 20 percent and up, with Robeson County having the sad distinction of the state’s highest poverty rate at 32 percent. Dare County, home to beach resorts and vacation homes, has the lowest rate.

One doesn’t have to travel far in Wake County to see poverty — homeless people, families in run-down dwellings, children in ragged clothes and bare feet. And yet Wake has the highest median income in North Carolina, $58,000, which is substantially above the state median of $41,000. From the City Council chambers in downtown Raleigh, where those arguments over the size of mansions have taken place, and where zoning cases involving multimillion-dollar shopping developments are routinely discussed, it’s not that long a walk to find people who need something to eat.

This isn’t about trying to board everyone on a bus for a collective guilt trip. It is about awareness, about the absolute necessity for the haves never to forget the have-nots, or never to fool themselves into thinking the problem of poverty has somehow been addressed with huge success. It hasn’t, and it’s not likely to be anytime soon. Census figures also remind us that for all the prosperity in some areas, North Carolina remains a poor state for many, one where horizons are limited and where poverty’s impact is felt in shortcomings in education and health care.

And that’s something monumentally important — more important, perhaps, than those who are to some degree comfortable may realize. For having a large percentage of people in poverty means the likelihood of perpetuating a comparable percentage in the future.

The children of poverty often become the adults of poverty, and so on. That’s why it is in everyone’s interest to lift others up. To neglect the problem only makes it worse. To recognize it, and to try to do something about it, helps the state as a whole, from its educational system to its economic well-being. But the effort also speaks to who we are as people, caring not just about ourselves, but about the family of humankind.

« Back to News