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N.C. tour turns poverty's 'bloodless statistics' into reality

January 20, 2012 |  2:29 pm

The poverty statistics from northeastern North Carolina are stark:

In six poor rural counties the rates range from 21% to 26%.  Among blacks, poverty rates approach 40% in parts of those counties. Statewide, the poverty rate is 17. 4%, the nation’s 12th highest.

The state’s NAACP, seeking to put a human face on what it calls "bloodless statistics," mounted a Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty through the six counties Thursday and Friday. More than 60 volunteers from the civil rights group and several other nonprofits piled onto a bus to hear local residents describe what poverty looks like and feels like.

"It’s no sin to be poor," the Rev. William Barber told residents of tiny Roper, N.C. "But it is a sin to allow entrenched and systemic poverty in the richest nation on Earth."

For two days, residents stood up in churches, town halls and community centers in the six counties to lay out the full dimensions of lives circumscribed by poverty.

In Beaufort County, Charlette Blackwell Clark told of trying and failing to raise enough cash to remove a tree that had collapsed on her mobile home, crushing the roof.  She’s a member of what demographers call the working poor. She cleans neighbors’ homes for cash; her husband, Noah, is a trash collector. Between them, they barely earn enough to survive day to day -- they can't pay $2,000 to remove a tree.

In Roper, town clerk Dorenda Gatling told of reluctantly cutting off town water service to friends and neighbors unable to pay their bills -- most of them low-wage workers or elderly people on fixed incomes. It pains her, Gatling said, because she has endured unemployment and hand-to-mouth living herself. But because the town itself is strapped for cash, she said, she had no choice but to "aggressively collect."

In Elizabeth City, the Rev. Tony Rice welcomed the tour to the cramped homeless shelter he runs. It’s the only men’s shelter within 100 miles, he said. It can accommodate just seven men a night. With the county’s homeless rate rising along with the poverty rate (23%), there are more than a thousand homeless people seeking shelter in the city every night.

Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, listened to dozens of people pour out their life stories. Poverty is far more than cold statistics, he told one gathering, "it lives in wounds to the human heart," he said. 

And federal poverty statistics tell only part of the story, tour leaders insisted. The federal poverty earnings threshold of $22,113 per year for a family of four is too low; families earning more than that amount also live in poverty, they said.

In Halifax County in northeastern North Carolina, for instance, the federal poverty rate is 26.2%. But a working family of four actually needs $46,120 a year to afford basic living expenses in the county, according to the N.C. Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

In Scotland Neck, a poverty-stricken northeastern North Carolina town that is 70% black, James Mills took the tour on a walk through the black part of a town he says is largely segregated by race.

Mills served two terms as the town’s first black mayor. He was voted out of office last fall.

Mills pointed out ramshackle homes and trailers occupied by blacks, and the ruins of abandoned houses along potholed streets.  Then he suggested that tour members drive through the predominantly white side of town, where he said roads are well paved and public services are far better.

As Mills spoke, a backhoe raised a racket while removing a large tree that had fallen onto a small house last summer. Mills said he had tried for months as mayor to get the city to remove the tree but was told that no facilities were available.

"Today, with y'all due to show up on your tour," the deposed mayor told the poverty tour, "it looks like the city decided it could find the energy and the facilities to clear out that tree."


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-- David Zucchino in Scotland Neck, N.C.

Photo: The Rev. William Barber, left, president of the North Carolina NAACP, asks Queen Richards, 50, of Scotland Neck, N.C., about conditions in her community. To the right, in the red shirt, is former Scotland Neck Mayor James Mills, who lost his reelection bid to a white candidate last fall.