Poverty Tour Seeks to Show Reality of North Carolina Poverty
By Jodie Levin-Epstein and Leah Lucas
The tour revealed something that belied the stereotype of poverty: person after person after person was a worker, but nevertheless could not make ends meet. There was the woman who each day took the bus from the homeless shelter to her nurses' aid job; the story of the nearly 70 year old woman who each morning, after providing care for her husband who has had a stroke, leaves him at home where there is no heat, so she can make her next job of driving a school bus. In between her bus runs, she goes home to care for her husband. She then goes to her janitorial job at the end of day.
The North Carolina Truth and Hope Tour is currently underway and shining a spotlight on the reality of poverty around the state. Past U.S. poverty tours have been conducted by figures such as Senator Robert F. Kennedy, President Bill Clinton, and Senator Paul Wellstone, among others. These tours shed light on the real hardships many Americans face—hardships that too often go unrecognized or ignored.
The tour is a project of a coalition of five North Carolina organizations and affiliates: NAACP; Justice Center; UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity; Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change; and the AARP. The first and second legs of the 3-part tour took place in early 2012.The final leg will take place in late April.
Ironically, while the tour has been underway, State Representative George Cleveland claimed that no person in North Carolina lives in extreme poverty, especially in comparison to less developed countries. He went so far as to call for the removal of language in a state report that described the level of extreme poverty. This notion that America's poor suffer comparatively little riffs off of a Heritage Foundation report which argued poverty in the U.S. is "grossly exaggerated"—a point many have called grossly misleading.
There was push-back to Cleveland's remarks even within his own party. At the same hearing at which Cleveland sought to eliminate "extreme poverty" from a state report, the Committee co-chair and a fellow Republican, Rep. Justin Burr said he believes, "there are certainly people in this state who are hurting and who need assistance and who are struggling to get by." Cleveland ultimately withdrew his request to excise the reference to extreme poverty.
Poverty in the U.S., while certainly a different kind of hardship than poverty in developing nations, is no picnic, and extreme poverty is worse. The official definition of poverty for a family of four is an income below $22,314 per year, which translates to $15.28 per person per day. Extreme poverty in the U.S. is defined as under half that level, or below $7.64 per person per day. In 2010, among those who were poor, more than 44 percent were in extreme poverty. While these families are often eligible for government programs such as food stamps (formally called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), even with this help, too many remain in extreme poverty.
If this snapshot is not disturbing enough, trends demonstrate that extreme poverty is on the rise in the U.S. In 2010, extreme poverty reached an historic high; one out of every 15 (6.7 percent) of Americans lives under $7.64 per day.
In North Carolina, the levels of extreme poverty are significant; the state ranks 10th worst in the nation. While the county that State Rep. Cleveland represents is not among the worst in the state, it is not immune to harsh statistics. Fully 1 of every 10 children in his county lives within the official definition of extreme poverty.
Poverty has become all but invisible, and too many North Carolinians, like George Cleveland, simply do not believe it exists or do not want to believe it exists–a fundamental challenge that many of the Tour's coalition sponsors wrestled with for some time. As North Carolina Justice Center's Executive Director, Melinda Lawrence noted, "We all felt that support for policy solutions would be impossible until more citizens and policymakers understood the extent and experience of poverty around the state." At the suggestion of the NAACP's Reverend Barber, the bus tour was launched.
To make poverty visible, the Truth and Hope Tour wanted to be certain to include communities that were physically and socially disconnected from the rest of the state, such as parts of the northeast where roads are few and media coverage rare. A diverse group began touring the state, including advocates, researchers, students, media, service providers, foundations, and civic leaders. To avoid any perception of partisanship, particularly during the campaign season, elected officials of either party were not invited on the bus. At community stops, however, elected officials showed up.
Although the tour has one more leg to go, it's already been an eye-opener, even among the organizers. For example, while the advocacy community was aware that utility prices were a problem, the conversations in the communities illuminated the depth of the problem. The fact that utility costs are now exceeding rent and mortgage payments was repeated time and again by residents in the Northeast. Environmental problems are no secret, but the tour highlighted how pervasive environmental inequities have become. One county along the coast has experienced aggressive development, and as Melinda Lawrence explains, "plans to put the trash literally on the front yards of the county's minority community. What is particularly galling is that this is a community that is already home to a sewage treatment center, a landfill, and an animal shelter. Residents don't get adequate sewage and water services, but the animals in the shelter do, and now the county wants to add a new 200-acre landfill."
To help other advocacy groups considering a poverty tour, Lawrence offers these tips:
- Media coverage By taking a tour to local communities, it is possible to generate local print and electronic coverage with reports and editorials, all of which help increase the discourse on these vital issues. The Truth and Hope tour is accomplishing this.
- Planning Allot more time than you think you need to plan and operationalize the community engagement process. The coalition did a series of listening sessions before the tour to hear which issues were high priorities in the tour communities and to explain the goals. More time after these sessions and before the tour, for example, would allow organizers to mobilize more stakeholders.
- In the Community The goal of the tour was to put a face on poverty and address stereotypes. The tour revealed something that belied the stereotype of poverty: person after person after person was a worker, but nevertheless could not make ends meet. There was the woman who each day took the bus from the homeless shelter to her nurses' aid job; the story of the nearly 70 year old woman who each morning, after providing care for her husband who has had a stroke, leaves him at home where there is no heat, so she can make her next job of driving a school bus. In between her bus runs, she goes home to care for her husband. She then goes to her janitorial job at the end of day.
- Memorializing the Tour To leverage the learning, it is important to document it. A videographer accompanied the tour and students will write up the communities' stories, which will be posted on-line and disseminated.
- On the Bus The common experience of being on the tour and learning together can build unexpected bonds. While most of those on the bus knew and worked with each other, this powerful shared experience has improved the ability of those on the bus to work together.
- Off the Tour Lots of communities were left off the tour and asked to come in. Selection processes can be more systemic with more planning time, but it helps to visit places with home-grown leaders. Strategies for including those who ask and those who don't ask to become part of the project should be considered from the get-go.
- After the Tour The Tour's goal is to demonstrate that poverty exists and what it means for communities. It is a first step. A convening in May will bring together people from around the state with policy stakeholders to discuss future actions.
For more information: Contact Melinda Lawrence, Executive Director of the NC Justice Center, at firstname.lastname@example.org.