Seven-year-old Isaiah Harrison stands in a big room; nothing’s in it yet — but it’s his.
“We’re staying here?” asks his 4-year-old sister, Canaiah Blackstone, from across the hall in another bedroom.
“For how long?” asks Kaliyah Blackstone, age 6, who, like her little sister, can’t seem to grasp that this four-bedroom house in southeast Greensboro with a huge yard is now home for the family after they bounced between hotel rooms and stints at the now-condemned Heritage House condominium complex.
Ask churches and nonprofit organizations what today’s poverty looks like, and this is it. It’s Isaiah’s father, Timothy Harrison, getting up before dawn every day to catch a ride with a co-worker to his warehouse job. It’s Isaiah’s mom, Toni Blackstone, looking for work — no qualifiers on the type of jobs she’ll take. And still, a family struggling for stability.
Statistics say some of the fastest-growing poverty in the country is reported in some of North Carolina’s cities, including the Greensboro-High Point metro area. It’s growing with the addition of families who have fallen out of the middle class because of layoffs or companies closing or underemployment; of working-class people grappling with loss of benefits or reduced hours or rising prices that give them less to live on; and of those who can’t find work or have given up on looking.
“You can’t stereotype,” said the Rev. Lisa Taylor, an outreach volunteer at New Jerusalem Cathedral, whose church offers a variety of community programs and efforts aimed at self-sufficiency and networks with other non profits to help people new to the suffering.
“There are so many more people needing help, with the loss of so many jobs, the increase in the cost of living and the price of food,” Taylor said. “People went from buying name-brand foods to buying the off-brand options to now asking us, ‘Can you give us food?’ ”
In the past 10 years, the state has gone from the 26th-highest poverty rate in the country to the 11th. One in 4 children are living in poverty.
At the same time, 1 in 5 people in the city of Greensboro live in poverty — that’s considered to be having an annual income of less than $24,000 for a family of four.
The local faith and nonprofit communities have tried to respond to the increased demand by focusing on the economy, such as partnering with Goodwill to offer job training, holding job fairs in their sanctuaries or doubling as homeless shelters in the winter.
So every Friday before leaving school, some local children get a package of food slipped in their backpacks that should keep them from going hungry over the weekend. Things like fruit cups and Vienna sausages from some of the charitable efforts.
When United Way of Greater Greensboro officials heard the annual “State of the City” report, compiled for the Greensboro Partnership by UNCG geography professor Keith G. Debbage, the group also decided to focus more of its resources on fighting poverty locally. The group plans discussions with residents, its community partners, foundations and the corporate community about a plan of action. Some of those meetings will be held in the weeks to come, but the group emphasizes it’s a long-term approach.
“We realize we cannot end poverty in our community, but we are going to take the biggest stab at it where we can,” said Franklin McCain, the group’s vice president of community impact and investment.
Poverty experts point to several factors that make conditions worse locally, including lingering effects of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which took a disproportionate number of high-paying manufacturing and textile jobs out of the Triad. As communities took steps to diversify, the country’s economy battled one of the worst recessions on record.
“There was a time in our area where you could have a good-paying job coming out of high school — or not finishing high school — by going into textiles and manufacturing and making a good living for your family,” said Jenny Moore of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, which is putting a food pantry on the campus of Wilkes Community College. That’s in response to a trend of the unemployed going back to school to learn new skills but still having to take care of their families.
Of the Second Harvest Food Bank’s 400 partner networks, 90 are in the greater Greensboro area, including the Greensboro Urban Ministry. Second Harvest is one of a handful of regional food banks in the state.
In 2009, the group distributed 7.9 million pounds of food. This past year, the group distributed 25 million pounds of food.
“And our agencies are still saying they don’t have enough food for the demand,” Moore said.
Of the people who walk through the doors of these agencies, more than half have someone working in the household and at least 20 percent are homeowners.
“These are people regularly having to face: Do I buy food or do I pay rent or do I get my medicine?” Moore said.
Some are struggling with health problems which are worsened by not getting enough nutritious food to eat, she said.
Earlier this week, Urban Ministry nearly ran out of food even with help from Second Harvest, supporting churches and individuals who write checks when they can. The agency also sometimes provides emergency assistance, such as helping with utility bills.
“The line outside our doors says the middle class is falling further and further behind,” said Mike Aiken, Urban Ministry’s executive director.
What was especially sobering for him was the response to several recent job postings for the nonprofit, including an assistant worker in emergency assistance and a position at the shelter.
“For one of the positions, we got 400 applicants, and it was just incredible the applications we got,” Aiken said, adding that many were overqualified, with advanced degrees. “It kind of breaks your heart to see the situation people are in.”
Aiken and others who study the effects of poverty, say despite the work of houses of worship and nonprofits, it is hard to have an impact with recent state policies that among other things limit unemployment benefits and rebuff efforts to extend Medicaid health coverage to an additional 500,000 people whose incomes are below the poverty level but who are not currently covered.
“At the same time there is astonishing, selfless work being done by volunteers and folks affiliated with social service organizations ... but it cannot and does not make up the chasm,” said Gene Nichol, the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“It does not come close, and we are losing ground.”