Poverty pockets threaten cities

Mar. 08, 2014 @ 01:17 AM

This editorial appeared in the News & Record, Greensboro

North Carolina's metro mayors heard a sobering report when they met in Charlotte recently

Poverty is a bigger problem for them than it is for the state's economically distressed small towns and rural areas.

The question is how much help they'll demand from the state.

William High of UNC-Chapel Hill's Center for Urban and Regional Studies examined poverty rates, per-capita income and unemployment across the state and labeled 162 census tracts as "severely economically distressed." Two-thirds of them are in urban areas. Ten of the 11 most severely distressed zones are in cities: the Leonard Avenue area in High Point, the Cumberland Street neighborhood in Greensboro, four tracts in Charlotte, three in Winston-Salem and even one in Raleigh.

Comparing urban to rural poverty finds surprising differences. People in distressed rural areas are more likely to own their homes and a car than those in distressed urban areas. They have higher incomes and lower unemployment. There is less of a racial gap: In rural distressed areas, 45 percent of residents are black, 37 percent are white and 7 percent are Latino. In urban distressed areas, 61 percent are black, 23 percent are white and 12 percent are Latino.

North Carolina's larger cities generally are doing much better than small towns and rural areas, where declining population and a shrinking tax base add to troubles. But that's part of what makes the problem of urban poverty more acute.

"Areas of concentrated poverty tend to have higher crime rates, lower housing quality and poor health outcomes," High's report says. "With high levels of unemployment, more than 50 percent of children living in poverty, and low levels of education, these tracts offer diminished social and economic opportunity, especially for their younger residents."

The report also notes that the state has provided programs "aimed at correcting the economic disparity between rural and urban areas." Efforts to help rural areas include greater funding for schools and public health, and economic development policies that offer greater incentives for businesses that locate or expand in distressed counties.

Yet, many urban areas are more economically distressed.

It's encouraging that metro mayors have put this problem on their priority list. They should use their resources to bring jobs to distressed areas, reduce crime and attack other social ills.

They also should press their state representatives for help. Decisions to deny expanded Medicaid coverage, flatten school spending and trim unemployment benefits reach deeply into high-poverty communities. Cities can't compensate for these losses, but they will pay a price for them.

"I wish the legislature would partner with us on some of these issues besides economic development," Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan said Monday.

It should. The cities are North Carolina's economic engines, but their future is threatened by these pockets of poverty. Cities, and the state, have a strong interest in spreading prosperity.