The other Durham: Poverty up in poorest areas

Oct. 22, 2013 @ 02:13 PM

John F. Kennedy, in a 1963 speech, optimistically spoke of the economy by saying  “a rising tide lifts all boats.”  You would be hard pressed to find a more apt symbol of Durham’s rising tide than the American Tobacco Campus.  

The 19th century-era tobacco warehouses have evolved into a home for media outlets, trendy restaurants and 21st-entury tech giants.  But not far from the campus are neighborhoods in Durham that slide further and further into the grips of poverty.

County-wide studies of poverty rates and unemployment rates obscure these neighborhoods and direct our attention to rural counties in the east and west. Of the 10 counties that have the highest unemployment and poverty rates, none has cities named Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem or Wilmington in them.  

In 2005, Allen Serkin and Stephen Whitlow, researchers at UNC, took a closer look at poverty by isolating the state’s most highly “distressed” census tracts -- tracts with high poverty and unemployment rates and low per capita incomes compared to state averages. They found that many “distressed” tracts in the state were located in prosperous cities, nestled where we wouldn’t suspect them: in the shadows of the banking towers in Charlotte, for example, or in the heart of Asheville or just blocks from the American Tobacco Campus.  

Serkin and Whitlow’s original study -- released just months after the American Tobacco Campus’ grand opening - showed that the distressed tracts in Durham on average had 45.55 percent poverty and 48.02 percent child poverty rates.  This summer, students at the UNC Poverty Center updated this data and found that during this most recent stage of Durham’s resurgence, people living in distressed tracts are experiencing higher poverty rates and significantly higher child poverty rates than they were a decade ago.

A half mile walk from the American Tobacco Campus down Dillard and Pettigrew Streets, just past St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, lies the border of Census Tract 11.  Its poverty rate is a whopping 37.6 percent.

Tract 11’s neighbor to the east, Tract 10.01, including the area around the Holton Career and Resource Center near East Durham Park, has an overall poverty rate of 44.1 percent. An astounding 63 percent of children in Tract 10.01 live in poverty. If trends continue, only 63.3 percent of them will graduate from high school.

Their shared neighbor to the south, Tract 14 (the area around Grant Park and Durham Technical Community College), fares even worse.  Over half of all people there live in poverty, including 79 percent of all kids. Only 59 percent of those children have been graduating from high school.  

A short drive from the ATC northwest on Main Street, past 9th Street, brings you to the distressed tracts in west Durham.  Tract 5 has 47.7 percent poverty and 59.5 percent child poverty.  A little further west lies Tract 15.01 -- around Lakewood Baptist Church -- where 85 percent of all residents live in poverty.

These numbers should shock the conscience, but they are no surprise to Winnie Morgan, coordinator of the Early Childhood Faith Initiative. According to her, “The biggest thing that Durham faces is the child poverty rate – it’s a real thing, and we feel that local congregations are a vehicle and provide valuable resources to reach out and make a difference.”

Catherine Pleil, Director of the Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network, a “community response to family homelessness” has noticed a recent change.  She sees “more people with abuse or trauma than ever before.”  The network’s daily work involves those living with  “poverty, mental health, learning disabilities, dysfunctional relationships -- which combine to make it combustible.”  

Olive Joyner, also from the Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network, thinks most of us don’t know how bad it really is.  “We aren’t just talking eight-dollar poverty, we are talking ‘I don’t get any money all month, and I switch out my food stamps to buy personal hygiene items’ poverty.  That is poverty at another level that I don’t think people are aware of. No cash all month. That is poverty in Durham.”

Decades after Kennedy coined the phrase, Gene Sperling, economic advisor to the Clinton and Obama administrations, opined that without the right policies, a rising tide “will lift some boats, but others will run aground.”  Therein lies the challenge.  It isn’t unique to Durham.  It is part and parcel of the economic challenge we face as a nation.  As American ingenuity creates new venues of wealth and opportunity, how do we assure that those a few blocks over aren’t left behind?

Joe Polich is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Poverty Center.