Winston-Salem mayor musters effort to combat poverty

by Jordan Green @JordanGreenYES

Organizational meetings of city councils are typical more ceremonial than substantive: Members take the oath of office. Veterans who are retiring give valedictory remarks or parting shots at adversaries. Newcomers offer platitudes about public service and eagerness to work with colleagues.

The seating of the new Winston- Salem City Council on Dec. 2 went a couple steps beyond.

After signaling his support for a bond referendum next year to pay for new infrastructure, Mayor Allen Joines, beginning his fourth term, outlined a second initiative: a task force on poverty, work and opportunity. Joines framed the fight against poverty as a moral initiative.

“Do you have an alternative to the suffering of the working poor?” he asked. “Do you have a solution to offer the single mom who works two jobs to make ends meet? Or do you have a solution for the couple that has been working every day but some catastrophic event has placed them in an economic situation that is beyond their control? To those who doubt this initiative, if you don’t have a solution, are you suggesting that we just continue the present course and let these individuals continue to suffer? I’d say that is not an acceptable answer.”

Councilwoman Molly Leight’s remarks struck similar notes.

Winston-Salem is North Carolina’s fifth largest city, having recently fallen behind Durham in the fast-growing Triangle. Neighboring Greensboro has held the third largest population for decades. Like Durham and Greensboro, Winston-Salem boasts a robust cohort of healthcare and educational institutions.

Winston-Salem has experienced a celebrated revitalization of its downtown and a biotech park is springing to life in the historic footprint of the old RJ Reynolds Tobacco campus, but the city continues to struggle with a legacy of racial and class division and the scars of urban renewal and slum clearance during the 1950s and ’60s.

By all measures, Winston-Salem and Forsyth County have the highest rate of poverty among the five largest cities in the state. About 28 percent of families live in poverty in both Forsyth County and the Winston- Salem metro area, which also includes Stokes, Yadkin and Davie counties.

Despite the presence of two firstrate healthcare facilities — Baptist Hospital and Forsyth Medical Center — the number of children who die before their first birthday in Forsyth County is significantly higher than any of the other four largest urban counties. The infant mortality rate in 2012 in Forsyth County was 10.2 deaths for every thousand live births — a rate that tracks closely with the average since 2008. In comparison, the infant mortality rate in 2012 ranged from 5.3 in Mecklenburg to 7.9 in Guilford and Durham counties.

And despite a handful of highereducation institutions catering to a range of interests and abilities, including Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem State University, Salem College and Forsyth Tech, Winston-Salem ranks last among the five cities for the percentage of residents who hold a college degree. In that sense, Winston-Salem is much like the neighboring Triad cities of Greensboro and High Point, which are similarly in the midst of a transition from legacy industries of tobacco, textiles and furniture. With 38.3 percent of its residents holding a college degree, Winston-Salem is in the middle of the cluster in the Triad. At the high end among the five largest cities, 54.5 percent of Raleigh residents hold some kind of a college degree.

In other measures of wellbeing, Winston-Salem is unspectacular: Median household income and unemployment are comparable to Greensboro. The two cities have the dubious distinction of jostling for top placement among America’s hungriest cities — defined by the Food Research Action Center as those that did not have enough money to buy food sometime in the past year. The Winston-Salem metro area ranked first in 2010, while the Greensboro-High Point area placed 17 th . In the most recent survey in 2012, Greensboro and High Point tied for second, while Winston-Salem dropped to 63 rd .

Joines said Councilman Derwin Montgomery, who represents the East Ward, and NC Sen. Earline Parmon, a Democrat who represents much of Winston-Salem, urged him to tackle poverty. He added that the success of the city’s efforts to reduce chronic homelessness convinced him that the time was right to undertake a new initiative on poverty.

“I think I was just so impressed at the 10 Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness and the extraordinary results that we’ve had,” Joines said in an interview. “Councilman Montgomery and Sen. Parmon approached me, and I thought maybe we could start a process to apply the same effort to ending poverty.”

Joines has frequently cited an impressive statistic — a reduction in chronic homelessness of 58 percent over the past six years — since his reelection in November.

Andrea Kurtz, a senior director at United Way of Forsyth County who heads up the effort to curb homelessness, said the number measures the difference between point-in-time counts in the last Wednesday of every January from 2005 to 2013. She said that inclement weather is unlikely to artificially depress the count considering that the vast majority of people captured in the effort tend to be in shelters as opposed to outside. Kurtz added that the numbers have been trending down, although they spiked in 2012 when “people came out of the woodwork” to take participate in the count with the inducement of a $5 gift card.

By another count, the city’s progress is not quite as dramatic: When looked at by the number of people who stayed at government-funded shelters, Kurtz said the decrease is seventee percent.

“Every measure we have is showing us that that number of people is trending down,” Kurtz said. “All of that is a good thing. It means that we are doing the work that we’re called to do.”

Joines said he looked at a similar initiative launched in Providence, RI in 2007 by former mayor David Cicilline as a potential model for his anti-poverty initiative. He said he envisions a task force or commission comprised of 25 to 30 members with representatives from the business community, law firms and clergy. The mayor has been keeping a list of prospective candidates on the inside of a manila folder, and said he is keen to find the right person to chair the task force.

“Any commission related to poverty should have representatives who are currently in the cycle of poverty and people who have made some kind of breakthrough,” Joines said. “I learned that [Congressman] Mel Watt came from a household that was desperately poor. His mother was 14 or 15 when she had him, and he ended up going to Yale. We could find out what made the difference for him. Maybe it was his mother pushing him. We need people like that who would be an inspiration.”

Montgomery, who attributes his motivation to run for council in 2009 to the disparities in wealth between large swaths of the East Ward and the rest of the city, said he struggles to understand why the county’s infant mortality rate is so high.

“It’s a big question that continues to be perplexing when you look at the surrounding resources and you look at the medical institutions here,” he said.

Montgomery noted that the reasons why people are poor vary, with some people tumbling into poverty because of a life-altering event such as a sudden medical challenge and others having the condition handed down to them through successive generations. For the latter category, educational assistance might be the most help.

“We have so many great colleges and institutions, from Wake Forest to Winston-Salem State and Salem College,” Montgomery said. “Kudos to Forsyth Tech for being such a flexible institution. They set up dual admission with Winston-Salem State so that if we have some individuals who say, ‘I can’t see myself going to a four-year college,’ they can take that first step and get their associates degree and then go on to get their bachelors.”

Montgomery, who is employed by Family Services in Winston-Salem, said he is also concerned about people who work full time and yet are still not able to make ends meet.

“If somebody’s working 40 hours a week and is still in poverty, that’s a problem,” he said. “We have teachers who teach who are in poverty. We have people who work for social service agencies or nonprofits who are helping other people, who are in poverty.”

The councilman went on to say that the city needs to take the lead in raising incomes for the working poor through its own employment practices. The starting salary for custodians, laborers and parking enforcement officers in Winston- Salem is $18,720 — below the figure in Greensboro.

The range of issues that contribute to poverty and might help address it run the gamut from zoning decisions that determine the income mix of downtown Winston-Salem to public transportation.

“Is our public transportation doing what it needs to get people to jobs?” Joines asked. “I’m glad we’ve extended it to Sundays, so people can use the bus to get to jobs at the hospitals.”

The mayor said he wants to launch the task force in January, and aim to implement a plan of action by September, while acknowledging the timeframe is ambitious.

Montgomery hopes the initiative will send a positive message about Winston-Salem.

“There are so many people who have great stories; they’ve pulled themselves up by the bootstraps,” Montgomery said. “But there are also people who need some assistance. I hope we can be a city where people say, ‘Winston-Salem is looking out for the less fortunate.’” !