Aaron Nelson and Chamber board chair Paige Zinn. Photo by Donn Young, courtesy of the Orange County Visitors Bureau.
CHAPEL HILL – Year after year, Orange County consistently ranks as the wealthiest in the state of North Carolina—but poverty, even here, continues to be a nagging and serious issue.
“There’s a big disparity between wealth, (and) there continues to be growth in childhood poverty,” said Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson at his annual State of the Community presentation this week. “That is (a statistic) that we need to pay close attention to.”
Orange County ranks first in the state with a per capita income of $48,683 in 2011, well above the state average of $36,000. But in spite of that, our poverty rate is also well above the state average: in 2011, 16.9 percent of Orange County residents were living below the poverty line, compared to 16.1 percent of all North Carolinians (and 14.3 percent of all Americans). The percentage is even higher in Chapel Hill alone, where 22.1 percent of residents lived below the poverty line in 2011.
“Some folks have often discounted that–(because they think) that’s just the student population…but our poverty level is high,” Nelson says. “We ought not to discount it simply because it includes students.”
For the first time, researchers this year were able to distinguish between students and non-students when analyzing wealth and poverty in the area. Students do account for much of the poverty rate in Chapel Hill—but that poverty rate is still elevated even when they’re taken out of the equation. About ten percent of Chapel Hill’s non-student population lives below the poverty line—a poverty rate that’s less than the state average, but still more than twice as high as nearby communities like Apex and Cary.
And the poverty rate increases when the focus is narrowed to children. “That is on the rise,” says Nelson, “and in a pretty serious way.”
The key increase is in the percentage of “economically disadvantaged” children, which is to say children who qualify for free and reduced lunch. 26.5 percent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School students and 41.6 percent of Orange County School students qualified for free and reduced lunch in 2011-12—the highest percentage in both districts since at least 2006, when the Chamber began collecting data.
And the high level of need in Orange County is at odds with the common perception of Chapel Hill as a wealthy community—a disconnect that actually makes it harder for governmental and non-governmental organizations to address the real need that exists.
“(It’s called) ‘Chapel Hill Syndrome,’” Nelson says. “Donors get this: it’s a belief that we don’t need anything, Orange County doesn’t need anything–we have the highest per capita income, the University’s there, the hospital’s there, your economy’s bulletproof–but the reality is that some of us feel that way and forget to reinvest and take a look under the rocks on what’s going on in our community with respect to poverty, particularly children in poverty.”
Nelson delivered his State of the Community report on Tuesday at the Friday Center. You can see the full presentation at this link.http://chapelboro.com/news/business/orange-county-wealthy-on-average-but-poverty-still-lingers/
CHAPEL HILL – Orange County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state—but when affluence is prevalent in an area, poverty and those affected by it can be pushed aside.
Jamie Rohe is the Homeless Program Coordinator for the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness.
“The housing situation has gotten worse because of the recession, and also because of a lack of funding from the state and federal level. A lot of public housing has been privatized over the years. We’ve hundreds of thousands of public housing over the last several decades,” Rohe said.
Rohe joined other panelists on the Inconvenient Truths discussion for WCHL’s community Forum.
She says there have been enormous cuts in federal funding for affordable housing. Between 1978 and 1983, the Department of Housing and Urban Development experienced a 70 percent drop in their budget.
Orange County commissioner Mark Dorosin the state has a wealth classification system for its counties, made up by three tiers. He says there’s certain funding that counties have access to if it’s a Tier One or Tier Two. Orange County is Tier Three—the wealthiest classification.
“So in some ways if you’re a low-wealth person, you have better access to getting resources if you’re not in a wealthy county. That is the disparities make it harder to access resources,” Dorosin said.
He says periodically, the community is confronted with the wealth disparity. He cited the challenges in provided services and reparations to the Roger Road Community, and Carrboro’s recent history with an anti-lingering ordinance that he says has a discriminatory impact on Latinos.
Dorosin believes Carrboro town leaders missed an opportunity when the housing complex Collins Crossing—which was predominately low-income housing at that time— was for sale. He says it could have been purchased and kept those units as an option for low-income families.
“The challenge is how to have that reality to match the rhetoric,” Dorosin said.
Earlier this year, Governor Pat McCrory and the state legislature voted against the Affordable Care Act expansion of Medicaid. Jill Edens, Pastor of the United Church of Chapel Hill, says this also negatively affected low-income families.
“This is just devastating when we don’t have this funding for health care overall and when the state is rejecting that expansion, as churches and with the IFC and with all our partnerships, we’re looking at an ocean of need,” Edens said.
Other Issues Addressed
Fran DiGiano, President of Clean Jordan Lake, also addressed his concern over the lake which provides water for 250,000 people and possible more in the future.
“Cause we’re all interconnected by way of what we call watersheds and the ones I’m concerned about are the ones that feed into Jordan Lake,” said DiGiano.
DiGiano says it’ll take time to correct what he calls “a 30-year legacy of trash.” He wants a community-wide effort to clean up the liter and invited volunteers.
Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, President of El Centro Hispano, additionally said she hopes to bridge relationships to help Hispanics integrate into the community.
“It’s telling people, ‘We are here and you need to acknowledge that.’ We made a decision and now we are living here. This is our town, our county and our country,” Rocha-Goldberg said.http://chapelboro.com/news/community-forum/wealth-disparity-in-chapel-hill-a-widening-gap/