Program chipping away at Durham’s poverty

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 10:19 AM

In Durham County, one out of every five people lives in poverty, according to the U. S. Census Bureau.

For children and teenagers under 18, the number is greater than one in four -- 27.2 percent in 2011, the most recent year for which census data is available. 

That is a staggering number, especially in a county whose overall affluence in recent years has lured upscale restaurants and retailers with a median household income of $47,007, nearly $3,000 more than North Carolina’s as a whole and one of the highest in the state.

To our credit, a host of agencies and individuals are trying to tackle the poverty issue from a multitude of directions.

Virtually all realize there is no magic bullet, no overarching solution that will neatly realize the vision of Jeffrey Sachs who wrote the influential “The End of Poverty” in 2005.  “If we can try to end poverty in developing nations, why can’t we end poverty in Durham?” Sachs wrote.

That quotation frames the mission of End Poverty Durham, the tireless coalition of faith- and community-based organizations founded in 2005 by pastors Mel Williams and Haywood Holderness. Both have since retired from the active pulpit – Williams at Watts Street Baptist Church, Holderness at Westminster Presbyterian. They remain passionately committed to the cause.

And that quotation provided the introduction to the work of the Durham Economic Resource Center, which celebrated its fifth anniversary with a dinner and fashion show the weekend before Thanksgiving. A fashion show might seem an odd pairing, but I’ll get to why it was the perfect evening entertainment in a moment.

I don’t know that the leaders of that organization would articulate it quite this way, but the DERC is addressing the most basic antidote to poverty. The poor would not be poor if they had more money.

DERC, as the program notes that evening put it, is a “unique workforce development program that includes on-the-job training and reduced cost merchandise to help low-income residents stretch their incomes.”

That reduced-cost merchandise, sold at a 6,000-square foot distribution center that also serves as a job-training worksite, includes clothing and wardrobe items that can give aspiring job-seekers a fashionable, professional look that boosts both self-confidence and employability.

The fashion show demonstrated to the group’s supporters and guests the runway-worthy quality and variety of that clothing. And these are not thrift-shop castaways; the clothing sold at the center is new. The program noted that the deep discounts at the center have saved its customers $4 million since its inception.

The program offered other encouraging numbers:

-- “DERC has enrolled 275 into the job-readiness, preparation and training program.

-- “176 or 60 percent have completed the program; 75 percent have been placed into employment or advanced educational opportunities.”

To be sure, 275 is a tiny number compared to the 51,000 poor people in Durham County.

But it is 275 people who might still face hopelessness and destitution.

Ending poverty is an audacious and probably fruitless goal. But reducing it sharply while ensuring that we have a safety net to ameliorate it for those for whom escape may be out of reach is a key to making this community realize its full potential. 

It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen with one wave of a wand. It is a long journey of small steps, and the DERC is an important one of those small steps.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or