Behind the golf resorts, upscale retirement villages and equestrian farms that dot Moore County is a worsening economic reality for thousands barely making it in one of the state’s most affluent counties.
The county in North Carolina’s Sandhills has a skyrocketing poverty rate growing at a clip that’s been surpassed by only four other counties in the country.
The extent of poverty wasn’t realized until the September release of poverty data through the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey. The survey found 18.5 percent of Moore County’s population lived in poverty in 2010, up from the 7.7 percent of county residents who lived below the poverty rate in 2007. (Click here to see a chart of N.C. counties with the highest jumps in poverty)
Poverty is defined as a family of four living off less than $22,314 a year, or an individual making less than $11,139.
The jump in poverty came as a shock to many, including some of those who have long worked with the area’s poor.
“We were floored that no one was talking about it,” said Susan Bellow, the director of Family Promise, a long-term shelter for homeless families in the county. “It just sort of showed up, and nobody that should have known was talking about it.”
No big employer in the area has shut down, nor has a single industry taken a hit large enough to explain the big jump in poverty.
Instead, the worsening situation in Moore County is attributed to the same factors being seen across the country — the belt-tightening in well-off households leading to less consumer spending; job losses and emergency funds whittled away in middle-class families; and the poorest households trying to hold on through the toughest job market since the Great Depression.
At places like the Moore County Free Care Clinic, which provides healthcare to uninsured adults, the 50 to 100 new patients seeking help each month signaled long ago that those who were solidly in the middle class had slipped.
“I knew these people in thriving business years ago, and they’ve lost their businesses,” said Debra Bateman, the clinical director and a nurse practitioner at the Southern Pines Clinic, about the new waves of patients.”There are only a small percentage of people that are doing well.”
When people end up seeking help at the clinic funded through donations, grants and volunteer work, common health conditions like hypertension and diabetes have often gone untreated for a while.
That can lead to life-threatening situations, as it did for one man a hospital referred to Bateman for follow-up care. The diabetic man was homeless and living out of his car when he contracted gangrene in his toes from his untreated diabetes. He couldn’t afford to treat the infected toes, and didn’t go to a hospital seeking help until after rodents got into his car and ate parts of his toes.
Few cases have been as bad as that, but Bateman said many of her patients forewent needed health care before finding the free clinic.
“There are a lot of people that don’t know where to go,” Bateman said. “My goal is that I prevent them from going to the emergency room.”
Poverty getting attention
Moore County’s new poverty ranking means nearly one out of every five residents is facing the pressures of empty food cabinets, electric bills they can little afford and worries about whether paychecks will be enough to keep a family fed and clothed.
Though it doesn’t have the state’s highest poverty rate — that undesirable spot goes to Robeson County where 31.1 percent of people are impoverished — Moore County saw the biggest jump in poverty, a sign that the recession hit the county particularly bad. Statewide, 17.5 percent of North Carolinians lived at or underneath the poverty level in 2010.
The sudden increase of poverty in the three-year period caught the attention of national publications like The New York Times, which ran a graphic listing Moore County as the fifth-hardest hit county in the country, as well as CBS Evening News, which sent down a television crew to the blighted former mill town of Robbins to see what was behind the growing poverty numbers.
The county is well-accustomed to dealing with the rich, especially in the Pinehurst and Southern Pines golf communities in the southern part of the county. The fabled Pinehurst No. 2 golf course played host to the U.S. Open in 2005 and will see the golf championship come back in 2014, when both the men’s and women’s championships will play there in during a two-week period.
Poverty has largely been relegated to unincorporated pockets around the resorts, as well as the communities like Robbins in the northern end of the county that have struggled to keep employers in the area.
But the new surge in poverty isn’t just coming from those entrenched pockets of poverty but as a result of the decline in the service and hospitality industries that support the 40-plus golf resorts and courses found in the county.
Demand has been high at food pantries, free health care clinics and service providers in the county that have seen neighbors who used to be firmly set their middle class now asking for help with basic needs.
“There really is poverty in Pinehurst,” said Barrett Walker, who runs the Sandhills-Moore County Coalition for Human Care, an emergency crisis center founded by several church communities. “We’re seeing people who have worked all their lives but their hours have been cut, or there’s been some type of illness or major life event.”
Walker said many who come by looking for help with electricity bills, emergency food packages and clothes have jobs, but have seen their hours and benefits cut in service-industry jobs.
The non-profit is also contending with the increase in request for help as donations are going down. The county’s services for the poor are often deemed ineligible for help from federal or state resources because the high levels of affluence in the county gives the impression that the county is economically okay.
Moore County is ranked as a Tier 3 county by the N.C. Department of Commerce, a designation reserved for the most economically sound regions. Being a Tier 3 county means not getting much of the state and federal aid that flows to ailing economies.
Carol Henry, a resident from the Jackson Hamlet community near Pinehurst, said she sees most families around her suffering from the effects of the economic downturn.
Jackson Hamlet is a primarily African-American neighborhood on the outskirts of Pinehurst that’s fought to get basic services while in the shadows of one of the state’s wealthiest communities.
“Employment was not that good to begin with,” Henry said. “Now, everyone’s afraid for their jobs, and there’s been a lot of cuts in hours.”
Henry, 71, has seen that firsthand. Her grandson moved in with her after his hours were cut at the grocery store where he works. She lives off of her Social Security and the $5,000 a year she estimates making as a substitute teacher.
She doesn’t think she’ll be able to stop working any time soon.
Not everyone convinced
The high poverty rate is being met with disbelief, and skepticism, by some leaders in the area.
“We don’t believe that the situation is correct,” County Manager T. Cary McSwain said in an interview.
McSwain questioned the Census data, and found The New York Times’ listing of Moore County’s poverty rate “slack journalism” that unfairly painted the county as among the most troubled in the nation without looking at the county’s attributes.
He mentioned the U.S. Open’s double-header in 2014, saying that being highlighted as a poor county on the national stage could have lasting effects on the tourism industry of the county.
He says he hasn’t seen any outward signs of poverty, with no large homeless populations gathering in parks. The county’s unemployment rate for September was 9.2 percent, lower than the state’s 10 percent unemployment rate. McSwain said there haven’t been neighborhoods hit with foreclosures, as has happened elsewhere.
When asked about the homeless population that might be living in cars, McSwain responds that doesn’t necessarily point to a dire situation.
“If they have a car that’s not been repossessed, that’s one step from being without a car,” he said.
For now, his hope is resting in “The Heart of North Carolina Mega Park,” an unbuilt industrial park that will straddle Montgomery and Moore Counties. Part of that effort led to Poultry Power, a company that turns chicken refuse into energy, opening a facility in Biscoe, a Montgomery County town on the border of Moore County. Moore County residents could get some of those jobs that will be coming, McSwain said.
Until then, the county needs to find out what led to the recent spike in poverty, he said.
“If there’s a population that hasn’t been identified, we need to meet their needs,” McSwain said. “We have to be able to offer people opportunities.”
N.C. counties with the highest jumps in poverty
|2007 poverty rate*||2010 poverty rate||Jump in poverty rate|
|State of N.C.||16.3%||17.5%||22%|
*Poverty rate is the percentage of people living under the federal poverty line, defined as a household of four living on $22,314 a year, or an individual making less than $11,139.
Source: U.S. Census, N.C. Budget and Tax Center. Poverty rates for all N.C. counties available in BTC’s “Poverty Grows, Opportunity Declines”