[Editor’s note: For those who may feel themselves losing hope for the future of the University of North Carolina system as the reactionary board of governors appointed by Republican leaders of the General Assembly continues to wreak havoc, it may help to take some time over the coming days to explore the latest investigative report from the N.C. Poverty Research Fund at the UNC School of Law. In “‘Surviving Through Together’: Hunger, Poverty and Persistence in High Point, North Carolina,” authors Heather Hunt and Gene Nichol have produced the latest in their ongoing series special reports about the realities of poverty in 21st Century North Carolina. This time, the focus is the one-time furniture making juggernaut of High Point. As with past efforts from Hunt and Nichol, the report represents academia at is finest. The following is from the introduction.]
High Point is not what comes to mind when thinking about the hungriest metropolitan area in the United States. A small city of about 114,000 people, located in North Carolina’s Triad region (with Greensboro and Winston-Salem) (Map 1), High Point has long been at the forefront of the state’s prominent, and almost defining, furniture industry. As the “Home Furnishings Capital of the World,” the city hosts the semi-annual, internationally recognized High Point Furniture Market, attracting over 75,000 exhibitors and buyers from around the globe. Furniture Land South, a five-minute drive from the downtown market showrooms, advertises itself as the largest furniture store in the world. High Point University, a private, Methodist-affiliated institution founded in 1924, is attended by almost 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students from almost every state and many nations. Unlike any North Carolina city of its size, High Point has a thriving Bentley dealership on North Main Street. An array of the city’s census tracts report elevated median incomes. An impressive new city-driven stadium project is designed to revitalize the downtown—bringing in, it is hoped, new restaurants, entertainment facilities and commercial endeavors.
On the face of it, High Point is not the poorest place in North Carolina, let alone the nation. Still, in 2015, a survey conducted by Gallup and released by a national anti-hunger advocacy organization found that the Greensboro-High Point metropolitan area had the highest levels of food hardship in the country. A year later, a High Point University survey of local High Point households confirmed the demoralizing results.
We saw these figures and related articles and wondered what was happening in High Point. How could hunger hit this region so hard? It had suffered grave losses as manufacturers closed shop, but its worst in the nation ranking seemed extreme. As we explored and studied the city, interviewed an array of community and civic leaders, and spoke to High Point residents facing the challenges of hunger and poverty, the story deepened. Embedded in a narrative about surpassing need appeared a galvanizing example of a community coming together to tackle its toughest problems. Faced with alarming stresses of hunger, which are often, as here, reflections of even more debilitating economic and structural hardships, High Point civic and community forces did not sit on their hands. Both private and public sector members locked arms to elevate food and poverty difficulties more effectively to their shared agendas. Notable progress has been made. We will attempt to highlight their bold and often uplifting steps here.
Our studies of food insecurity in High Point, however, have also revealed broader, sometimes even more intractable, concerns. Census data and other demographic measures reveal a worrisome level of food hardship for seniors. Though not always technically living in poverty, such older community members often provide food and other essential support to grandchildren and extended families. Our interviews repeatedly echoed this theme—seniors attempting to assist their extended families—suggesting difficulties not fully resolved by greater access to food resources alone.
We noted at the outset that High Point is not the poorest city in North Carolina. But like some other Tar Heel cities, High Point’s levels of poverty are elevated and intense in specific neighborhoods. And as is common in other parts of North Carolina, High Point’s poverty is also disproportionately racialized and increasingly concentrated. Concentrated poverty, unsurprisingly, multiplies the stresses of individual hardship and it can erode possibilities of economic mobility and opportunity. These deep concerns are experienced potently in High Point and they can leave the inspiring efforts of non-profit, charitable and religious organizations, even when sometimes aided by supportive local governments, frustratingly incomplete. Despite insistent private anti-hunger efforts, food insecurity remains a stubborn concern. Child poverty, senior hardship, racialized poverty and concentrated poverty can work to entrench hunger and opportunity challenges. Broader state and federal public policy changes such as cuts to food stamps (SNAP) from Washington and Raleigh may serve to hinder some of High Point’s hard-fought progress.
High Point thus becomes an example of impressive community response to hardship and marginalization. The High Point narrative also reveals the limits of that response. Sustained and broad-ranging efforts are, of course, essential to successfully pushing back against debilitating challenges. Arising as they do from potent poverty and economic hardship realities, it is also likely that local charitable efforts, no matter how striking, will fail to overcome the daunting barriers to opportunity and prosperity that appear in High Point, or, for that matter, in North Carolina as a whole. As Augustine put it, “charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
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