Disturbing new report on NC’s largest city is a must read for those who care about our state and its future
The city of Charlotte – bustling with activity, rapid growth and construction cranes and soon to be within shouting distance of a million residents – may seem an odd place to feature in a new report on poverty. The authors of “Economic Hardship, Radicalized Concentrated Poverty and the Challenges of Low Wage Work: Charlotte, North Carolina” acknowledge this truth right up front in their just-released study.
As Professor Gene Nichol and researcher Heather Hunt of the University of North Carolina School of Law and the N.C. Poverty Research Fund note in the opening paragraphs of their report, the city of Charlotte and its home county of Mecklenburg have a long and impressive list of things going for them – a fast-growing population, gleaming office towers filled with the employees of major corporations, giant medical centers, top flight universities, big league sports teams and an outsized share of the state’s wealth and economic output.
And yet, as you have no doubt already divined, there is a lot more to the story of Charlotte than meets the eye of the occasional visitor or even that of the cloistered local physician who recently told an anti-poverty worker interviewed for the report: “there’s no poverty here… I’ve lived in Charlotte all my life, if there was poverty, I’d have seen it.”
The startling and tragic fact documented at great length and in painful detail by Nichol and Hunt is that there is poverty in Charlotte – lots of it. What’s more, it’s not merely a mild or scattered phenomenon. Charlotte is home to harsh, grinding and debilitating poverty that afflicts a sizable portion of its population – as many as one in five individuals under the formal and stingy official federal guidelines. And sadly, things are getting worse. Not only has poverty risen significantly in the 21st Century, but there is an increasingly intense concentration of poverty, with a huge share of impoverished people clustered into a handful of comparatively small geographic areas.
Real world examples
Before plunging into the disturbing data in detail, however, Nichol and Hunt commence their report with an instructive look at the city’s much-admired and accomplished, but nonetheless perpetually inundated and overwhelmed, 41year-old anti-poverty nonprofit, Crisis Assistance Ministry. Based on more than 18 months of conversation and interaction with the group and its clients, the profile provides a powerful window into the real world lives of the thousands upon thousands of people it serves. Here’s a sample:
“The Ministry runs a massive distribution center for clothing and housewares and a furniture and appliance operation—providing essentials of life free of charge for those living in or near poverty. For over two decades, it has also operated as a central hub of Mecklenburg County and United Way emergency financial assistance efforts, relying on local, state, federal and private funds to try to help stem the tide of privation. The Ministry staffers have their work cut out for them….
The stories of the impoverished, often exhausted and fearful Charlotte residents waiting in the long, snaking line outside the front doors of Crisis Assistance Ministry—hours before sunrise—remind of the tragedies and terrors of life at the edge. Homes foreclosed, apartments bolted, increased and unaffordable rental rates, shuttered buildings, power shut off, kids in the cold and on the streets, lost jobs, reduced hours, ballooning health care bills, ruined marriages, families doubling up and still unable to make it. They sometimes speak of helplessness and desperation. Most of all, perhaps, they tell of a fear and a shame about what might happen next. What will it mean to my kids, my loved ones, the ones who depend on me, if we’re evicted and can’t go anywhere else? A few blocks away, most of the clients are well aware, desperate and defeated residents live in the woods and under the bridges near uptown Charlotte. Few can bear that prospect.”
The profile also relates the stories of several Crisis Assistance Ministry clients who have found themselves on the losing end of the city’s ongoing hemorrhage of middle class jobs. Time and again, these struggling workers tell the story of being simply unable to make ends meet on any number of combinations of low wage jobs. As the report puts it:
“Poverty’s causes, and its cures, surely, are complex and variegated. But some things, they reported, are, nonetheless, fairly straightforward. Residents fighting to keep their families out of poverty utter a common, even repetitive, refrain. They are usually too polite to phrase it this bluntly. But, at heart, their claim is consistent: ‘it’s the wages stupid.’”
The hard numbers
Ultimately, however, it is data that lie at the heart of the report. Weaving in nearly 40 charts, graphs and maps, the report makes an exhaustive case that poverty in Charlotte is intense, debilitating, and destructive, on the rise and, to a large extent, closely intertwined with race and segregation. After noting big gains in income in recent years for the overwhelmingly white upper and upper-middle class, the report notes:
“Still, income disparities by race, sex, education and family structure lead to massive chasms between the prospects and the conditions found in varied Charlotte communities and households. Worrisome too are indications that the middle class overall is shrinking. As the Pew Research Center recently reported, between 2000 and 2014 the share of adults living in middle-income households in the Charlotte metro area declined from 59% to 52%—while at the same time, the share of adults in lower-income households grew from 21% to 28%.”
But perhaps the most damning and sobering section of the report is the one entitled “Concentrating Poverty.” Here, Nichol and Hunt document the alarming spike in the walling off of poverty into discreet, race-based neighborhoods.
“In Mecklenburg, the number of ‘high poverty’ census tracts (with 20% or more of the population living in poverty) has multiplied in recent years. Additionally, many more people now live in high poverty tracts. In 2000, 19% of the county’s census tracts were high poverty; four tracts had a poverty rate of 40% or more….By 2014, the number of high poverty tracts had jumped to 34% of all tracts. Seventeen tracts had poverty rates over 40%—a 325% increase from 2000….In 2000, 34% of poor people in the county lived in a high poverty census tract. In 2014, 64% of poor people—and 30% of all residents regardless of income—lived in a high poverty tract….
In 2014, 70 of 79 high poverty tracts in Mecklenburg were majority nonwhite. Of the 51 tracts that were 70% or more black and Hispanic, 43 were high poverty….This represents a 20 percentage point increase since 2000 (from 64% of high minority tracts to 84%). Only two predominantly black census tracts were not high poverty, and one was teetering on the brink with a poverty rate of 19.4%.”
And, as common sense tells us, the heightened intensity and segregation of poverty typically foster a vicious cycle. Nichol put it this way in a recent Charlotte Observer essay summarizing the report:
“In high-poverty neighborhoods, the poor must cope not only with the challenges of their own deprivation, but also with those of their neighbors. Dangerous streets, substandard housing, challenged schools, sparse transportation, isolation from commercial opportunities and services – the list is long.”
So, what to do?
The report authors are candid in admitting that there is no single, magic solution to the poverty crisis that afflicts Charlotte. They rightfully note that poverty is massively complex and impacted by scores of factors – including racism, segregation, education, housing and transportation patterns, the changing nature of work and many others. Just uncovering the problem and holding it up to the light of day, they argue persuasively, is a critically important step.
That said; it’s hard not to come back to the desire expressed repeatedly by so many of the struggling people with whom the authors spoke – namely the wish to be paid a living wage. As more and more people across the nation have come to realize in recent years as a result of the heroic efforts of groups and individuals in the “Fight for 15” movement, a living income is no panacea for all the ills of modern capitalism or a racial divide hundreds of years in the making, but it would be a heck of a start and is already beginning to make a difference in the localities that have embraced it.
Let’s hope future reports from the N.C. Poverty Research Fund return to this simple but potentially powerful solution.