by Jeff Sykes

Regional mayors discuss plans, barriers to combat rising poverty | @jeffreysykes

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan stood humbly to one side as the large man holding the microphone she had given him just moments before railed against the lingering impact of 400 years of slavery on the African American community.

The man, and his friend, had grown visibly impatient during the morning sessions of the Greensboro Poverty Summit, as a renowned economist, and then a pair of researchers from the University of North Carolina, droned on about statistics and percentages, painting a picture of poverty that nearly 20 percent of the residents of Guilford and Forsyth counties come to know on a daily basis.

When the man ended his harangue, having reminded the well-connected crowd of activists, elected officials and journalists that the aspirations of black people in America had been violently suppressed for many a year, he got around to asking the men on stage a question.

The men on stage happened to be the mayors of Durham and Winston-Salem. Each had completed a brief presentation on their respective attempts to deal with poverty back home.

The man asked each mayor how many of their city contracts went to firms headed by minorities?

“Don’t punt,” the man demanded. Mayor William Bell, of Durham, said his city had a strong commitment to minority hiring, but that he didn’t have the statistics in front of him.

“That’s a punt!” the man cried. Bell defended Durham’s commitment to minority contracting as Vaughan made her way across the back of the room, microphone in hand, to the next audience member with a question. She approached the tall man as Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines explained that his city awarded about 15 percent of their contracts to minority firms last year.

“Appreciate it,” the first man replied from his seat.

Vaughan reluctantly handed the microphone to Dr. Michael Roberto, a professor of history at NC A&T State University. Roberto had already verbally sparred, academically speaking, with UNCG’s Andrew Brod, the renowned economist who kicked off the poverty summit with an overview of the Brookings Institution report that had precipitated the discussion.

Vaughan had told Roberto “you’re done” when he asked for another chance at the microphone, but gravitated back to him during the mayoral question and answer session. Roberto spoke at length about the rampant inequality in our economic system and the, in his view, regressive tax policies of the most recent iteration of the North Carolina General Assembly.

The mayors demurred, pointing out that cities in this state have very little power to impact tax policy at the state level. Vaughan soldiered on, handing the microphone to an Episcopal priest who spent his time pointing out the moral deficiencies, in his view, of Rep. Virginia Foxx and state Sen. Trudy Wade.

Vaughan appeared in her element as she worked the crowd, trying to keep the discussion focused on poverty despite the crowd’s preference to talk about so much else. And maybe that was the point of the Greensboro Poverty Summit, held Sept. 10 at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. The Brookings Institution had released a report in August regarding the change in poverty rates since the year 2000. The news was not good for the cities in the Piedmont Triad.

Of the cities with the highest percentage increase of suburban poverty between 2000 and 2012, North Carolina took four spots in the top 10. Winston-Salem ranked second in suburban poverty clustering. The study showed census tracts with poverty rates higher than 20 percent. Winston-Salem saw a 33 percent increase in the number of poor people living in 20 percent tracts. The Greensboro-High Point area saw a similar increase of 29 percent, which ranked them seventh. Charlotte came in tenth place.

Andrew Brod put those numbers in contrast to the overall growth rates of each city. Winston-Salem’s overall growth rate was 13 percent, but that number of people living in poverty in the Twin City increased 82 percent.

Greensboro’s rates were 12 percent overall and 77 percent growth in poverty. The ratio for both cities came in at 6.2, compared to ratios of 3 for Raleigh, and 2.3 for Charlotte.

“Frankly that is quite distressing if you are a resident of the Triad,” Brod said.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow for boosters in Greensboro and Winston- Salem. Both cities are in the middle of transformative projects intended to spur economic development. The Wake Forest Innovation Quarter in Winston-Salem’s downtown is remaking mothballed RJ Reynolds tobacco assets into educational, medical and research facilities. Greensboro has two projects in the works, a $60 million performing arts center financed by a hybrid publicprivate partnership, and the South Elm redevelopment on the other side of downtown. That project so far contains a unified campus for local nursing programs. Plans are in the works for other mixed-use development at the site, including commercial, residential and possibly a hotel facility.

But those projects do little to alleviate the sting of manufacturing job losses in the last 15 years, which many say are driving the spikes in suburban poverty. Crimped municipal budgets mean a litany of urban challenges continue to go unaddressed.

Vaughan made it clear that she was not satisfied to let the report pass by unaddressed, despite the fact that city leaders know too well how poverty is affecting quality of life in Greensboro.

“We did not need a national study to tell us the challenges of poverty are overwhelming,” Vaughan said in opening the discussion. When asked a few days after the event what she gained from the experience, she explained her hopes that the conversation will evolve.

“I think it was good to actually understand what the Brookings report said,” Vaughan reflected. “I think that Bell and Joines gave us some food for

thought. It was not intended to be a one and done meeting. Poverty has been around for a long time and it’s going to take a long time to fix this.”

Mayors Bell and Joines both hinted that a targeted, cohesive attack was called for. Bell said that in Durham his Poverty Reduction Initiative, announced in February, will focus on specific neighborhoods to see if measurable success is gained. Joines outlined his broad plan, yet to be unleashed, that he hopes will bring forces to bear.

Both mayors said that a better use of the resources currently available was a first step. Bell’s plan in Durham is not seeking any additional funding at any level.

“We’re not trying to supplement any work that is already going on. We’re trying to compliment it,” Bell said. “If you have a program that is working, we’re not saying to stop it. We’re saying continue.”

Joines noted that three pilot projects in Winston-Salem are in the works. He hopes to bring an intentional approach to poverty reduction in all future city projects. The United Way of Forsyth County has a project similar to Bell’s in Durham. Their “place-based initiative” targets specific neighborhoods to apply all possible resources aimed at combating poverty there. The Winston- Salem Housing Authority’s Step Up Program seeks to assist people with employment by providing access to child care and transportation services. A “circles” program between Green Street Methodist and Grace Street Presbyterian churches seeks to surround families living in poverty with advocates from across a spectrum of professions to provide leadership, peer support and basic financial literacy.

Joines noted that he too was not seeking new money for the initiative.

“I’m not sure it’s a matter of new money,” Joines said. “I think it’s a matter of using what we’ve got a little more effectively and efficiently.”

Mayor Vaughan said that her next steps include continuing the conversation and attempting to build a consensus among the state’s mayors to approach the legislature, if not for assistance, then to at least end the recent spate of anti-municipal legislation that has cost cities millions of dollars in funding.

The League of Municipalities meets in Greensboro in October, and Vaughan hopes to build momentum for anti-poverty measures there.

All three mayors noted that the state’s move to rescind the business license tax in cities was a major blow. It will cost Greensboro some $3.2 million in the next budget. Mayor Bell of Durham said the death of the historic preservation tax credits was an undue burden as well.

“That’s the way we have grown our community,” Bell said. “We’ve been able to use historic tax credits at the sate and federal level, and the new market tax credits. They took that away. We didn’t ask for that.”

Joines described the state’s actions as having created an “anti-urban environment.” Vaughan concurred.

“We are at the whims of the legislature and we really don’t know what can happen,” she said. “Thank goodness it was a short session. But we’re going in to a long session and we really don’t know what is going to happen with their tax modernization plan. It’s something that we’re all just going to have to hang in together.” !