Orange County Is Wealthy, But Poverty Still Widespread

Orange County is one of the wealthiest counties in North Carolina, but poverty is still a major issue.

How widespread is it?

“3,820 children in Orange County live in poverty,” says Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson, quoting numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. “That’s a lot of children waking up in one of the richest counties in the state of North Carolina, in poverty.”

As of 2013, the latest available data, about 3800 Orange County children were living in poverty – about 13.4 percent of all Orange County kids. On the plus side, that’s down from a peak of 4800, or 17.4 percent, at the height of the recession in 2010.

“We’ve been bending down, and that’s really good news,” says Nelson.

But not every measure of childhood poverty is trending down. Nelson says the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch is still on the rise, in both of Orange County’s school districts.

“Orange County Schools (is) at 43 percent, up from 32 percent in 2006-07, (and) Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is also on the increase, from 21 to 28.2 percent,” he says. “This number is not showing that trend down in poverty.”

And while the number of families receiving food and nutrition services (food stamps) is down slightly, it’s still significantly higher than it was even in the midst of the recession. 6,087 Orange County families receive food stamps today – down from a peak of 6,533 in 2013, but virtually unchanged from four years ago and well up from 4600 in the middle of 2010.

“The recession is long over, and yet this number (has) continued to grow,” Nelson says.

Nelson says the recent decline is good news, but the long-term trend is still sobering. In 2007, prior to the recession, only 2,900 Orange County families received food stamps. That number has more than doubled.

Orange County’s overall poverty rate is 15.5 percent, slightly below the 17.9 percent rate for the state as a whole – and surprisingly, more than 23 percent of Chapel Hillians live in poverty. Nelson says the student population skews that data a bit, but “I don’t want to discount that we do have poor students too, who really are struggling to make their way through college or community college.”

And he says the percentage of children living in poverty is a reminder that this is a very real issue in our community, students or no students.

Nor is a decline in poverty necessarily an entirely good thing. Nelson says there’s a correlation between the improving economy and the drop in poverty – but correlation does not equal causation. Is Orange County’s childhood poverty rate declining because poor families are moving out of poverty? Or is it because poor families are simply moving out of Orange County?

Nelson says it’s not clear. But there is one more troubling statistic. In the year 2000, according to the Urban Institute, there were 1,839 housing units in Orange County that were available for “extremely low income” households – or households making less than 30 percent of the county’s median income. At the time, Orange County had about 6,000 households fitting that description.

As of 2013, Orange County still had about 6,000 “extremely low income” households – but the number of available housing units had dropped almost in half, from more than 1800 down to 1,022.

Nelson says we’re seeing that trend in every county in the region.

“And I did some math – do you know what your wage is if you make minimum wage, working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, you never take a vacation or a sick day?” he says. “It’s $16,500.”

Thirty percent of Orange County’s median income is $20,300 – so there are about six thousand households in Orange County making less than or barely over minimum wage (some of them students but not all), and the number of available housing units for those families has been shrinking rapidly for more than a decade.

Nelson made those comments last month, delivering his annual State of the Community report.

You can check out the full report here.

North Carolina Ranks Low For Child Welfare

North Carolina ranks low for child welfare, according to a new report released Tuesday. Laila Bell is the director of research and data at NC Child. She says North Carolina’s modest economic recovery is doing little to help those who need the most.

“When you look at the data you see that North Carolina ranks 35th in the country for overall child well-being, but we also find that North Carolina children and families are really being left behind,” says Bell.

A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation uses census data to compare measures of child welfare from state to state. North Carolina now has the 11th highest poverty rate in the nation. What’s more, the data shows three out of four economic indicators have worsened since 2008. One in four children now live in poverty, a 25 percent increase. One in three children live in families who struggle to afford the cost of housing or where parents lack secure employment.

Financial hardships plague many families in North Carolina, and Bell says that puts a generation of children at risk.

“When children grow up in poverty, they experience a number of challenges and barriers that affect their readiness to learn and their opportunities to complete high school and go on to post-secondary education,” says Bell. “They have poorer health outcomes; they experience more difficulty when they try to transition into the workforce as an adult; they’re more likely to grow up in communities that lack the types of resources and support that can promote healthy growth and development.”

She says policies that increase access to early childhood education, keep parents in the workforce, and help provide a financial cushion for families are key to lifting communities out of poverty.

According to Bell, North Carolina’s declines are driven in part by policy decisions at the state level.

“State and federal policies like the child tax credit or the earned income tax credit can really help low-wage working families stretch tight budgets, but unfortunately in North Carolina we saw the earned income tax credit was allowed to sunset, so that’s a financial boost that our families no longer have, despite the fact that they’re struggling with economic challenges.”

Despite the sobering statistics, Bell says there are a few bright spots.

“We saw some improvement in the health indicator, in fact all four of those indicators improved,” says Bell. “We can really point back to things like North Carolina’s investment in our state children’s health insurance program and Medicaid that have helped increased children’s access to health insurance and that’s a public policy success that has had a very big impact on outcomes for our kids.”

Still, she notes that these are lagging indicators. She says advances in child health and education benchmarks are the result of investments made years ago.

“In education and health, seven out of eight of those indicators are moving in the right direction and we know what’s really driving that momentum: we’re reaping the benefits and the returns of previous investments in evidence-based public policies and programs.”

Another bright spot, says Bell, is that some local communities are stepping up to address the challenge of childhood poverty.

“In several different parts of the state, there are local task forces looking at issues like poverty and economic opportunity with a lens towards what they can do at the local level to help increase opportunity for kids and their families. We’re encouraged by that progress.”

In Orange County, a coalition of social service agencies has formed the Family Success Alliance to help impoverished children. County Commissioners also voted to extend childcare subsidies cut by the state. Bell says these types of policies can make a big difference for working families.

You can find the full report here.

Poverty Research Fund Rises From Defunct UNC Center

Rising from the ashes of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, the newly announced Poverty Research Fund continues to spotlight North Carolina’s poorest citizens, as an outspoken professor continues to take on adversaries who want to shut down that work at the university.

UNC Law Professor Gene Nichol, who ran the UNC Center on Poverty, is a favorite target of conservative think tanks. On many occasions, he has sharply, and publicly criticized the Republican-controlled state General Assembly, and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

In February, the Center on Poverty was closed by the UNC Board of Governors, even though it received no state support. Accusations of politically motivated payback followed.

And the battle continues. Recently, Nichol announced the formation of the UNC Poverty Research Fund. Heather Hunt works with Nichol, and her work at the UNC Center on Poverty pre-dated his by at least a couple of years.

She explained the basic difference between the center, and the Poverty Research Fund.

“Outreach, convening events, working with students across campus – that’s more of what a center does,” said Hunt. “A research fund is, really, an extension of an individual professor’s research interests. So it’s much more focused on the research.”

In his recent announcement of the Poverty Research Fund, Nichol expressed gratitude for the support he’s received in the past few months. Hunt said the Research Fund has received numerous private gifts. All told, she said, there’s enough funding available to keep the research project afloat “for the foreseeable future.”

“Some of it is just a continuation of funding that the [Poverty] Center had received to do research, that was then re-routed to the fund,” said Hunt. “Other than that, it was through the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and they’ve been very supportive all along, as we’ve gone through this turmoil.”

The first research project on the Fund’s priority list is a two-year-study called “Putting a Face on Poverty in North Carolina Communities.”

Hunt said the idea grew out of a series of columns Nichol wrote for The News and Observer. She said that more in-depth research Is planned in some North Carolina communities. So far, those places include Charlotte, Salisbury, Durham, Asheville, Goldsboro, Roper, Lumberton and Greensboro.

“In Greensboro, we’re looking at hunger,” said Hunt. “Greensboro is one of the hungriest cities, by one research study, in the United States. Why is that? What’s going on? What’s the story of hunger in Greensboro? So, we’re trying to dig down a little deeper into some of these topics, and give them the space that they deserve.”

Nichol hasn’t minced words about the closing of the Poverty Center – he called it “censorship.” If that’s true, did censorship backfire, in this case? Or did Nichol’s influential adversaries manage to do some damage? Hunt said the answer is: both.

“We’ve spent an unhealthy portion of the last year responding to record requests – which, you know, are fine, but they were used in a abusive way,” said Hunt.

The record requests came from the conservative Civitas Institute, which wanted Nichol’s UNC-related emails, text messages, calendar entries, and other communications. Hunt said it distracted researchers from their work, and that, along with the Board of Governors process, cast of pall of uncertainty over the future of that work.

Civitas is still going after Nichol. In a recent WRAL story about the Poverty Research Fund, Civitas Director Francis De Luca insinuated that Nichol’s teacher salary is going, at least in part, toward running a nonprofit, while he is – to use De Luca’s term – “supposedly” teaching law.

Hunt fired back.

“It’s not true,” said Hunt. “He would get paid that anyway to teach that class, as he does now. He does everything else on top of that. And he works really hard to make sure that it’s done well.”

Civitas isn’t the only conservative organization ready to keep the fight going. On Monday afternoon, the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy sent out a press release questioning the Poverty Research Fund’s “ethics and legality” under school rules.

Nichol responded in an email to WCHL. He wrote: “Faculty members are not prevented from doing research on poverty at the University of North Carolina.”

Census Report: Off-Campus Students Inflate Local Poverty Rates

A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau sheds light on a question many local leaders have been asking for a long time- how do college students affect town and county poverty rates?

Rebecca Tippett is the Director of Carolina Demography at UNC’s Carolina Population Center. She says off-campus students significantly inflate local poverty rates.

“In Chapel Hill the poverty rate cuts in half when you exclude them from the population, because the poverty rate among those students is so high, largely just because they’re in school full-time and might not need to be working,” says Tippett.

When off-campus students are not counted, Chapel Hill’s poverty rate falls from 23.7 percent to 11.5 percent. At the county level, the rate drops from 18.8 percent to 14 percent.

The report used data from the 2009-2011 American Community Survey. It examined three groups of students, those living in dorms, those living with family members, and those living off-campus.

Students living in dorms, who account for 11 percent of the total student population nationwide, are never counted in the poverty rate.

Students living with family members account for 63 percent of the total. They are always included in poverty measures, as are the 25 percent of students living off-campus.

The report shows excluding the off-campus population has little impact on state poverty rates, but can make a big difference at the local level.

When it comes to estimating the need for social support services, government officials usually assume students are only temporarily living below the poverty line while they are in school full-time.

But Tippett says that’s not always the case. She warns against excluding the student population from discussions of poverty all together.

“I do have some concerns about wanting to remove students from the impoverished population entirely,” says Tippett. “I think it many cases, particularly when you’re having conversations about the increasing challenge of student debt and the current job market, we do want to keep in mind that just because people are in school they don’t all have parental support. They might be trying to work full time and can’t make it. I think there are important nuances to this to keep in mind.”

Tippett says this is an area where local governments should coordinate with schools and institutions to make sure student needs are met.

“Just because people are students, doesn’t mean they don’t have needs that are not being met by their work and loan packages,” says Tippett. “I think this is a very tricky population and what it points to is the need to coordinate local government and school interaction to address this, to better understand what the student population is; who they are; what their needs are; how that might impact and interplay with the local government.”

You can read the full report here.

UNC to Continue Work on Poverty

Many UNC faculty members, and citizen across the state, have expressed concern recently with the decision from the Board of Governors to close three centers across the UNC System. UNC Faculty Chair Doctor Bruce Cairns tells WCHL’s Blake Hodge that the university’s work on poverty will continue despite the decision to close the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at UNC.

Carrboro High Student Lobbies D.C. For Global Change

A Carrboro High School student went to Washington last week to press for action on issues of poverty, hunger and climate change.

“It was really such an amazing experience,” says fifteen-year-old Amanda Padden. She was one of 30 students traveling with the ONE campaign. “We just went and got to talk to American leaders about poverty and hunger and disease and give our thoughts about what the next 15 years should look like.”

ONE Campaign organizers say if concerted actions are taken to increase spending on public services and to reduce inequality, extreme poverty could be reduced from over a billion people today to around 360 million in 2030.

That translates to a drop from 18 percent down to 4 percent of the projected world population.

More than 1,000 organizations in 130 countries have teamed up in this effort, dubbed Action 2015. Participants aim to convince world leaders to take measurable steps to fight poverty and climate change at both the upcoming UN Special Summit on Sustainable Development in September and the Paris Climate talks in December.

Students around the world are holding similar meetings with leaders in India, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, Kenya, Uganda, and Norway as part of the outreach effort.

Padden says the enthusiasm of one Carrboro High teacher helped ignite her passion for global health issues.

“I have a teacher who has just really worked to get us involved in global health and get us to learn about the different problems around the world and it just sparked my interest. He helped us to get involved with the ONE Campaign.”

She’d like to see more students her age taking an interest in global health.

“I think just getting people to learn about the world and to look a little farther outside of North Carolina, outside of the United States and see what the problems are would really be a huge help,” says Padden.

You can find out more about the ONE Campaign here.

Common Themes Develop Among 2015 Priorities

Flipping the calendar to a new year can cause reflection over what happened over the previous 12 months. It can provide a clean slate for starting new. And it can present new challenges.

Managing growth and fighting poverty are two ideas that would seem to counter each other. But, throughout our community, this juxtaposed theme continues to emerge. The message from many community leaders is that we must continue to strive for growth, while lending a helping hand to those in need.

In that vein, Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says he is excited about the two zones in Orange County chosen by the Family Success Alliance, aimed at helping children from low-income families continue on to higher levels of education.

Kleinschmidt adds that Chapel Hill, specifically, has to focus on the “Design 2020” development project and work toward a public transit solution.

“We’re going to be exploring some new ways of financing bus purchases,” he says. “The earmarks that David Price, our congressman, used to bring to us to buy new buses are gone, and we have to find new ways to do that.”

Meanwhile, in neighboring Carrboro, Mayor Lydia Lavelle says they will be focusing on bringing more projects to the town.

“As the economy continues to do a little better, we’re hoping to see some more projects come forward over the next year,” she says, “including projects like the library.”

Kristen Smith, with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, says that she believes there will be a reenergized spirit to help those that are less fortunate.

“I think some people are renewing their focus on poverty,” she says, with the goal of finding “how we can come together and collaborate around that.”

Smith cites the UNC Global Research Institute, whose focus will be on “Feeding a Hungry World” for the 2015 – 2016 and 2016 – 2017 academic years.

Mayor Tom Stevens says the Town of Hillsborough will be focusing on ways to systematically build citizen engagement and leadership throughout the community. He adds that promoting tourism will be a key, along with managing growth.

“We’re going to have two new neighborhoods,” he says, “so we’re going to have a lot of new folks in town.”

Stevens adds that he believes Hillsborough can welcome new residents and hold on to its “small-town character.”

Riding the tourism wave, Laurie Paolicelli, with the Orange County Visitors’ Bureau, says that they are working to continue bringing in higher numbers of visitors to the area.

“We’re trying to work with our partners to figure out: Do we stay open a little later? Do we offer night lighting, more way-finding, more marketing of the area?” she says. “We have a lot of opportunity and a lot of smart leaders.”

Paiolicelli adds that it will be important to continue bringing in visitors to fill hotels that are targeting our community.

Zones Chosen By FSA Council To Create Pipeline to Success for Children

The Family Success Alliance Council has chosen two of the six geographic zones to enact a pilot program with the goal of creating a pipeline of success for children living in poverty.

Dr. Michael Steiner, with UNC Health Care, announced the selection following a committee vote.

“Congratulations to Zone 4 and Zone 6, and the Family Success Alliance will look forward to continue working with you and starting the next steps of the process.”

Zone 4 represents central Orange County, specifically between I-40 and I-85. Zone 6 covers a densely populated area from downtown Chapel Hill to Highway 54.

Representatives from the six zones that were being considered for the pilot program gave their pitch to the council during a special meeting, on Tuesday evening.

Delores Bailey, from the non-profit EmPowerment, represented Zone 6. In her pitch to the council, she focused on a need of young children in the community.

“There’s been a major setback in the Head Start program,” she says. “And that alone has been responsible for the groundwork and young people growing. If we’re missing that Head Start piece, we’ve got to have resources that wrap around what we’re missing from there.”

Zone four was campaigned for by Aviva Scully from Stanback Middle School and New Hope Elementary’s Rosemary Deane.

Deane says that during some community events they were able to break down barriers and establish a cumulative goal for the area.

“During our forum, we had families from all over come together. You could see a common vision of what they want for our community,” she recalled.

They are looking to calm some of those concerns with the help of pilot program from the Family Success Alliance Council.

One common theme developed throughout the meeting. No matter which zones were ultimately selected, the ball was rolling and each zone would have the support of the zones that were not chosen.

As for those zones that were not selected, Orange County Health Department Director Dr. Colleen Bridger cautioned that this was a pilot program, so there was no firm timeline for involving the other zones. But she made clear the intention was to do so.

“We need to try it and see how it goes. And then as soon as we can, we want every single zone to be involved in this.”

Doctor Bridger adds that the zones that were not selected will be encouraged to continue their work, and the council will be able to provide some guidance following their next meeting in February.

Meanwhile, the implementation of the pilot program will immediately go into action in zones four and six. Feedback from the success of these programs will be documented and passed along to other areas throughout the community to encourage similar efforts.

OC Health Department Wants To Tackle Growing Poverty

As the number of Orange County families and children living in poverty continues to grow, officials with the Health Department are looking to other communities for strategies to help those in need.

The number of people living in poverty grew more in North Carolina than anywhere else in the nation, according to US Census Data. The state saw a 17.9 percent increase in its poverty rate between 2006 and 2010.

Despite the perception that Orange County is an affluent area, Meredith Stewart, planning manager for the Board of Health, says more and more local families are struggling too.

“About one in three of our kids in Orange County schools, so that’s both districts, are on free- or reduced-lunch,” Stewart says. “About one in four of our kids in Orange County are on Medicaid. We do have families struggling to get by, as evidence by those numbers.”

The area’s high cost of living is also a challenge for families. In Orange County, a household would need the income from 2.2 full-time minimum wage jobs to be able to afford the median rent on a two-bedroom apartment.

Stewart says officials are just beginning to plan how to tackle the multi-faceted problem of poverty.

“I think a conversation is beginning around the issues that are happening in Orange County and how we can address them from many different angles,” Stewart says. “So, this isn’t something that one person or one group can work on, we all have to come together to think about and talk about our families and issues like housing, food, education, and childcare. All of these issues go together.”

As part of that conversation, local leaders are looking to other communities that have launched successful intervention programs.

“We’ll have the privilege of having Dr. Betina Jean-Louis from the Harlem Children’s Zone, who will be joining us this Friday starting at 8:00 a.m. at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, to talk about the Harlem Children’s Zone and the work that they have done to improve the pipeline, as they call it, from cradle to career or college for children and how that was really a community effort that started with a community conversation that we’re starting to have here in Orange County.”

Stewart and others hope that programs such as The Harlem Children’s Zone and the East Durham Children’s Initiative could provide a model for lowering child poverty rates in Orange County.

Friday’s meeting is open to the public.

For more information, click here.

Orange County’s Biggest Hidden Issue: Part II

A couple months ago, I asked: “What is Orange County’s biggest hidden issue?” What is the biggest issue in Orange County that ISN’T being talked about, in any way, in any news outlet?

There are a lot, obviously. Even in a county as per-capita prosperous as this one, there’s bound to be room for improvement in numerous areas—and as for “not being talked about,” well, I’ve already used this space to drone on about the limited resources available to modern-day media. Enough with that.

But of all the un-discussed issues in Orange County, what’s the biggest? What’s the most pressing?

Many of you responded.

Is it the old-boy network? Twitter user @W0CG0 wrote: “Quite simply, (it’s) the attempt by older residents to limit activities and access of those under the age of 50.”

Is it overpriced housing? “The subtle effect of the anti-development, anti-growth zealots is to keep housing prices inflated due to lack of supply. A good example is the Estes Road plan. People want less development to keep up home prices. The road needs to be widened.”

Or—related—is it the lack of workforce housing? “We can build a homeless shelter, but god forbid we build apartments or town homes for police, teachers & firefighters.”

(That’s all @W0CG0, by the way.)

Mark Marcoplos suggested home rule, or rather the lack thereof — the extent to which state law restrains local governments from doing much of anything without permission from the General Assembly. “I consider this to be the biggest obstacle to progressive policy that we face,” he wrote. This has come up recently in a variety of issues — most notably Chapel Hill’s attempt to ban cell phone use while driving or to update its towing ordinance — but Marcoplos said it’s more wide-ranging than you think. “It’s an unnecessary shackling of local governance.”

And another responder (who chose to remain anonymous) pointed to “administrative cover-ups (and) misappropriations in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools,” as well as an unequal distribution of resources from one school to another — both of which, the responder says, contribute to “poor working conditions (and) teacher dissatisfaction.”

But easily the most common responses revolved around the prevalence of poverty in Orange County — notwithstanding our status as North Carolina’s wealthiest.

“Poverty and children going hungry,” wrote Rachel Hawkins. “No excuse for it.”

Vicki Vars Boyer agreed: “Too many of our kids are on free/reduced lunch” — another stat that’s unequally distributed from school to school, incidentally — “and in need of backpacks of food to take home so they can get through the weekend.”

And it’s not just backpacks. “At Chapel Hill High this week they are running a granola bar drive,” wrote Kathy Kaufman (in November). “(T)he school social worker needs a ready supply to give to kids who don’t have lunch money and may not have had breakfast either. There are other ways hungry kids are quietly helped in the school as well.”

Ricky Spero took the issue beyond the schools. “With the recent drop in SNAP benefits, I’m curious to learn where we have food security issues in our community,” he wrote. “As a national issue, it’s a bit overwhelming to think about how our family could help, but as a local issue, it’s an area where we could pitch in.”

And George Cianciolo added that solving the problem would require more than just dealing with immediate food security issues. “As in many other areas of the country, the disparity in income levels continues to widen here with no easy solutions in sight,” he said, so “(m)ore jobs paying living wages are desperately needed.”

Poverty is something we’ve discussed on WCHL and on, but there are many facets of the issue that have gone unexamined — and even as it gets reported, that old notion still lingers that poverty’s not really an issue here.

So as promised, I’ll be writing more about poverty in the months to come. Thanks to everyone for their contributions.