Greensboro poverty rate should be a call to action

by Eric Ginsburg

According to the most recent figures, 20 percent of Greensboro residents live in poverty, and more than 26 percent of children do. How does this affect our actions, our public discourse and conventional wisdom? What does it mean about our collective future?

There are plenty of development plans floating around Greensboro. The greenway project continues to make headway, UNCG intends to push into Glenwood, my article last week detailed a strategy to create a “downtown university district” and, of course, there’s the controversial landfill debate.

But in all this planning, how much are poor and working-class residents being considered? How will the greenway, which will run along some existing train lines, affect homeless folks who find shelter under bridges? How do revitalization and development plans acknowledge or compensate for the fact that they may increase rent prices?

With so many homes and buildings in foreclosure, the quality of life for all surrounding residents drops. In other places around the country, local authorities have refused to carry out evictions or communities have organized to stop them. What does a solution look like here? How can a process that is detrimental to most and beneficial to few be altered or stopped completely?

The dominant paradigm around jobs in North Carolina is that we should keep costs low to attract outside businesses. It appears that, even though the mills and their modern counterparts like Dell shut down and moved elsewhere, we’re still pandering to outside companies by glorifying our lack of collective bargaining and unreasonably low wages. Do we lack creativity and ingenuity to the extent that we can’t even discuss other options?

A March 26 New York Times article advocating for a federal minimum-wage increase challenged the argument that the local Raise the Wage campaign faced constantly: that increasing wages decreases the number of jobs. “Economists analyzing the impact of the increases on jobs have concluded that moderate increases have no discernible impact on joblessness,” it argued. In cities that raised their minimum wage above the federal standard, “Employers did not rush off to cheaper labor markets in the suburbs or across state lines for a simple reason: That costs money too.”

Higher wages wouldn’t solve the problem alone.

Many people here that make above minimum wage still struggle to find full-time employment, receive benefits or feed their families. The so-called middle class is disappearing and the ranks of the unemployed are high.

While a total solution may be unclear, the status quo in our city and state blatantly ignores most people’s needs. Will the conversation in the upcoming city council campaign reflect the complexity of this issue, or will we hear the same argument from all sides that the goal is to attract business the same ways we try now?

The News & Record recently reported that Greensboro has the fourth highest hunger rate of any city in the country, and while the Gallup survey seems suspect, it is based in the reality that many people here can’t feed themselves or their families. Winston-Salem came in third. Something is terribly wrong.

The staggering percentage of people living in poverty is a wake-up call — not just to those who are fortunate enough to exist above the poverty line, but for those below it as well. With such an overwhelming percentage of people experiencing poverty, the message is clear. This is not a story of simply personal failures, but a systemic one.

Continuing on our current path means that — regardless of how well intentioned we may be — we are ignoring the pressing needs of a large portion of the community. What are the implications of only acknowledging poor people as an afterthought? Somehow we’ve accepted the idea that poverty, homelessness and hunger are just a part of life rather than seeing them as intolerable aspects of our lives and community. If these things are an inherent part of our realities, what makes it so? Is it wealth distribution? Human nature? Do we accept these inequities because it’s all we’ve ever known or because they are actually impossible to change?

The solution goes beyond further support for charity and assistance programs, though it can help. Part of the solution entails changing our approach and our mindset, but most importantly demands we organize to determine the course of our collective future rather than simply allowing it to be decided for us.

How truly democratic is it that these residents don’t even have seats at the table? I’m doubtful that representation would do much to alleviate these social ills, but the lack of even tokenistic representation of Greensboro’s underclass in political and economic decisions speaks to the undemocratic nature of the process.

Power can be defined as coercive or relational. The lack of relational, horizontal power that is created through relationships and the abundance of coercive power over others is an element of why such staggering inequalities continue to exist.

If people are living in poverty in Greensboro, we have to ask: “Compared to what?” The answer is more than the Gallup poll or other statistics can reveal, because part of the answer is simply, “In comparison to the folks living on the other side of town and the ones making the decisions.” What, then, does this reality demand of us?