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A community conversation about poverty and opportunity in Goldsboro

On Wednesday afternoon, January 17th Gene Nichol stood at a podium at the First African Baptist Church in Goldsboro, NC, cleared his throat and told an expectant community what it already knew, “that its city was uniquely gripped by poverty”.

What those 130 in attendance may not have completely grasped prior to this presentation was the contextualized nature of poverty and how this grip blocking the potential for everyone’s prosperity.

After 18 months of work in Goldsboro, Gene Nichol and Heather Hunt released a report titled “Goldsboro: Isolation and Marginalization in Eastern North Carolina [1]” which not only highlighted statistically how poverty ravages the community, but gathered narratives from residents who experience it day to day.

With detail, after excruciating detail, Nichol’s talk illuminated the depths of poverty in this Eastern NC city.  Sometimes audible gasps from the audience followed revelations like the fact that more than half of African American children living in poverty or that the middle class in the city had declined some 12% from 2000 to 2014. These were the details that Nichol was able to share in the 30 minutes allotted for his talk, the report reveals much more.

Divided into five parts, the particularly revelatory sections were “People, Poverty and the Economy,” “Concentrated Poverty, Isolation and Crushing Hardship” and “The Centrality of Effective Education for All.”

People, Poverty and the Economy” paints the demographic picture of the city for the past 36 years and found that as the white population has dropped to 38% as the African American and Latinx populations rose to 51% and 6% respectively. The section also reveals the median household income as an indicator of the city’s economy compared to the state and Wayne County. The authors show that in 2016, North Carolina’s median household income was $48,256, Wayne County’s was $40,457 and Goldsboro’s was $32,148. Data reveals that the middle class in Goldsboro exposed a terrifying trend for the long-term prosperity of the city. As mentioned earlier, Nichol and Hunt reference research from Pew, that shows that from 2000 to 2014 the middle class shrunk 12% in Goldsboro. This represents a decline in the percentage of adults in the city in the middle class from 60% to 48%, while the lower income tier increased from 27% to 41%.  Using Census data, the authors explain that more than 46% of Goldsboro’s household earn less than $30,000 a year, 13% earn less than $10,000 annually. Nichol and Hunt argue that prosperity and poverty are intensely stratified by race. They present Census data that reveal that white families earn $20,000 more a year than black families, more than half of Black families earn less than $30,000, and while 13% of white families are poor, 34% of black families live in poverty.  Their data also show that forty percent of children in Goldsboro are growing up in poverty and that 50% or more of all Black children are growing in this circumstance. These data points only provide the tip of the iceberg as the authors use 25 measures of income and demography to assess the present and future economic condition of the city.

In the next section, “Concentrated Poverty, Isolation and Crushing Hardship” the authors turn to the words of the those living in or serving residents in the four census tracts with the highest concentrations of poverty to provide a more humanistic understanding of poverty’s consequences. Census tracts 14, 15, 18 and 19 each have poverty rates of 33%, 35%, 42% and 40% respectively.

Shirley Edwards, a retired mental health administrator, explained to the authors that the “poor who live there are separated off, segregated out. That breeds discontent and disconnection.” Nichol and Hunt discovered Tonya Robertson, who is a teaching assistant with six young children. Her marriage of fifteen years failed forcing her to live in one of the census tracts where poverty rates reach upwards of 40%. She described falling into poverty after being situated in the middle class as gut punch. The safety net intended to help her get back there is not working.  She states that where she lives gun shots are commonplace, day and night. Sadly, Tonya cannot afford to move because affordable housing is scarce. She has to work, and this retards her progress towards a degree in education that would qualify her to become a teacher. The authors recount that Tonya feels trapped in a situation deteriorating around her.

These stories are not the only ones. This section features eight such narratives from different perspectives, all illuminating the devastation that the weight of poverty has dealt the city and its people.

In “The Centrality of Effective Education for All” the report introduces the irony of Wayne County being the home of Charles B. Aycock, the education governor while at the same time being the white supremacist governor of North Carolina. Nichol and Hunt captured that this kind of duality has persisted and affects poor people’s access to education in Wayne County and Goldsboro from Shirley Edwards. She surmised that while the schools are present that quality education was never the goal or outcome for poor people in the county. “Entrenched poverty” were in her words the product of this purposeful policy.

This, of course, has tremendous implications for those who live in the city. Patricia Yates, former director of Literacy Connections of Wayne County, believes that the lack of literacy is just one of the outcomes of a school system that remains uncommitted to serving all. Yates argues that one in ten adults in Goldsboro is completely illiterate while 25% reads below a third-grade level and almost 60% read below a high school level. This by extension bounds a certain percentage of the population to life prospects that should not be acceptable for any community.

The authors of this report Gene Nichol and Heather Hunt provided a detailed analysis of the lived experience in Goldsboro and poverty through statistics and conversations. Such a complete assessment of a challenge afflicting people should and can inform solutions.