Lingering poverty growing in Winston-Salem
By Cash Michaels
For The Chronicle
It has been known for years. Winston-Salem has a bad poverty problem.
Indeed, when it comes t some of the poorest urban areas anywhere in North Carolina, Winston-Salem has areas that rank fourth (Waughtown and Columbia Heights), eighth (Northeast Ward) and ninth (East Ward) out of the Top 10 for having “… the most economically distressed [US Census] tracts,” according to a February 2014 UNC-Chapel Hill study by William High and Todd Owen.
Based on the 2010 US Census, the most recent federal population survey, “distressed urban census tracts,” as defined by the study, are urban population sections that have high percentages of unemployment, low per capita income and high percentages of public assistance.
In that report, Forsyth County actually has 12 urban distressed census tracts in total, but no rural tracts. “Winston-Salem has more distressed tracts than any urban area in the state except Charlotte,” the UNC study states in its conclusion.
Charlotte has high poverty areas that rank first, second, fifth, and sixth; High Point third; Greensboro 10th; and Raleigh seventh.
That same year in 2014, the Brookings Institute – a Washington think tank – in conjunction with the online “Business Insider,” also released a report showing that Winston-Salem was second on a list of major metro areas in the nation that experienced tremendous growth in poverty in distressed tracts with 20 percent-plus poor populations between the years 2000 and 2008-12.
With 24.1 percent of its residents living below the poverty level, the city had an 82 percent growth in its poor population from 2008 to 2012 alone, according to U.S. Census figures, with African-Americans – over 34 percent of Winston-Salem’s population, according to the census – making up more than 31 percent of those in poverty.
The impact of the economic recession, which cost many their jobs, is seen as a key factor, observers and officials say.
The East, Northeast and Southeast wards are the areas of the city that are struggling most with issues of high unemployment and low median household income. Like other distressed tracts across the state, poverty is concentrated in these areas, thus yielding high crime, lower health outcomes, and few, if any, economic opportunities.
In each case, according to the 2014 UNC study, these wards suffer from lower rates of home and vehicle ownership; a high likelihood of families with children headed by single mothers (indeed three of five families are headed by single mothers. They also have the highest proportion of Spanish-speaking and non-English speaking households.
Unemployment in urban distressed tracts is literally at least twice the statewide rate. Per capita income is less than half the state average, and poor urban residents have greater rates of public assistance, according to the UNC study.
These economically distressed wards also share the characteristic of having lower percentages of adults who’ve graduated from high school or attained bachelor degrees or higher, than statewide attainment rates.
On Thursday, Oct. 29, Mayor Allen Joines, along with City Council Member Derwin Montgomery and others, announced the formation of the so-called Winston-Salem Poverty Thought Force – a 21-member panel of civic and academic leaders tasked to hold a series of community meetings to devise effective approaches to lowering poverty in the city.
“We are going to address poverty in five sub areas,” Joines told The Chronicle by email subsequently on Tuesday. “Jobs; food ; health disparities; education; and housing. We will be seeking broad community input into each of these subject areas and from that input will create objectives to address the issue. It is our plan to complete this analysis and idea-generating phase by early spring and then transform the ideas into tangible and measurable objectives by mid-year.”
“In 2014, more than 24 percent of the citizens in Winston-Salem lived in poverty, based on their household income,” Joines told reporters on Oct. 29. “That’s not only disheartening, but unacceptable for a progressive city. Residents who live in poverty cannot provide themselves and their dependents with adequate medical care, education, housing, food and other resources by which we measure our quality of life.”
Montgomery said at the press conference that with a quarter of the city’s residents “lacking in the basic necessities,” Winston-Salem cannot move forward. “Truly, poverty forces people to live in the shadows of our community and adversely impacts us from our schools to our private businesses,” Montgomery told reporters. “If our morality does not lead us to take action, the economics of poverty should. We will all pay if we do nothing.”
In an email response for comment from The Chronicle Tuesday, Montgomery elaborated.
“At the end of the day, there are several things that I personally think need to happen. (1) People want and need to work, must make not just a ‘living wage’ but what I consider a “thriving wage”, (2) There must be educational pipelines for everyone that desires, that connects to meaningful employment (3) The state and federal government must change the rules for those receiving public assistance that incentives their economic accent. As it stands today, if an individual wants to get a higher paying job, they put at risk any assistance they receive that simply helps them make ends meat. There should be a gradual reduction in assistance and not the ‘cliff’ that is currently in place.”
Montgomery continued, “There has to be access to opportunities. Barriers that have impacted black and brown individuals disproportionately must be set aside, this includes the impact of criminal records and credit scores used in the hiring process.”
The Chronicle also reached out to Northeast Ward Council Member and Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke and Southeast Ward Council Member James Taylor Jr. by email and phone to get their thoughts about what the city and state should specifically be doing to address the growing poverty in the city. However, neither responded to our requests for comment by press time Tuesday.
The five Thought Force subcommittees will begin their meetings in January and February, officials say. Forsyth Futures will provide the latest data analysis to the effort.
“Ultimately, our goal is for the Thought Force to come up with a list of recommendations that are both feasible and impactful,” Joines said, “and to set a goal in terms of a percentage of reduction in the poverty rate.”
Joines continued, ““I realize that this is an ambitious undertaking, but I believe that if we act collaboratively as a community, we can come up with a plan that will significantly reduce our poverty rate, and in the process, improve the lives of thousands of our citizens.”