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The poor get poorer

This summer the Brookings Institution released the findings of a nationwide poverty study, and the results indicated that the suburban poor populations in the Triad have been growing at one of the fastest rates in the country.

The study reported that the poverty rate percentage point change between 2000 and 2010 was 6.7 percent for Greensboro, one of the fastest-growing rates in the country.

City of Greensboro officials quickly snapped into damage control mode by expressing their concern and announcing a poverty summit on September 10. While it is always nice to see some compassion from those in power, I’m worried that the Triad has fallen victim to a national trend, and we are powerless against it.

First, let’s contemplate how disturbing these findings are. The federal poverty line is defined as $23,492 a year for a family of four. After low-rate taxes that comes out to about $1,600 each month. Consider for a moment how much you spent on housing, utilities, groceries, gas, loan repayments and bills last month and ask yourself if $1,600 is enough money to sustain even one adult.

After years of living on a shoestring, never being able to put money into a savings account or afford new things, it’s a struggle just to keep up with the demands of providing food and shelter. And when you are living paycheck to paycheck, it only takes one accident or brush with illness to send you into a black hole of lifelong debt and inescapable poverty. Talk to some of the homeless population in the Triad and you will find that many of them were employed, tax-paying citizens until tragedy struck.

Now think about how recent data indicate that one in four children live at or below the poverty line in the state. The numbers are also depressing for women, with 19 percent living in poverty. That rate jumps to 41 percent for single parent households, which are mostly headed by women.

While I don’t want to sound fatalistic, poverty is clearly cyclical.

People who are born into poverty typically stay poor. When you begin life with fewer resources, less access to quality education and nutrition, and exposure to higher crime rates, then you are less likely to succeed. With poverty rates rising, that means that children can expect to be worse off than their parents now instead of just maintaining the bleak status quo.

The rise of poverty in the suburbs is highlighting the lack or resources available to low-income families outside of downtown. You typically can’t walk to thrift stores or food banks from the suburbs, and taking the bus from the sprawl can be either a hassle or impossible. Without resources, poverty in the suburbs can be an incredibly isolating experience that compounds the problem.

For many people suburban poverty isn’t quite visible yet, and this Brooking’s Institution report seems to contradict other reports about how corporations are experiencing record high profits and how North Carolina is in the midst of an economic boom. How can so many people become richer in this state just as poverty levels increase so sharply? Why are women and children the ones that are hurt the most by this widening income disparity?

There is more opportunity in the tech industry than any other in the country right now. Apps like Snapchat have estimated values in the billions with 20-something CEOs turning into modern day Rockefellers overnight. Raleigh can point to it’s own investment in the tech industry as the main reason why the capital has become an economic Cinderella story.

In a way, the software industry is reinventing the manufacturing economy. We are making things in this country again – they just aren’t necessarily tangible.

The problem is that women and minorities have yet to get a fair slice of that pie while industries that disproportionately employ women (education, social work, liberal arts and child care) have experienced hit after hit. Jobs and wages for women-heavy careers have been whittled back to levels that make it nearly impossible for college alumnae to even pay back their student loans.

North Carolina has also aggressively restricted a woman’s access to reproductive care in the past few years.

Considering that single parenthood is practically a one-way ticket to poverty for a young woman and her child, it seems obvious that access to family planning services would be economically beneficial to the women in this state.

So what can Greensboro and Winston-Salem do? The municipalities have their hands tied when it comes to state legislation regarding women’s health care, and even less power when it comes to national trends in the job market.

There’s no single magic bullet. It’s an uphill battle for the cities to try and establish programs to create jobs, add affordable housing downtown, increase public transit accessibility, and provide other resources as a landslide of obstacles trickle down from larger systemic issues.

My hope is that city governments in the Triad face the numbers with unflinching honesty. A lot of the country is hurting right now due to circumstances out of local government control, but for some reason citizens in the Triad are slipping into poverty at an alarming rate. If we want the Triad to have a future, we need to find out why. !

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