If you asked me how folks are doing in North Carolina, I’d likely poke my head outside my back door, take a peek, and pronounce that things are A-OK. I live in Chapel Hill, and although my neighborhood features several homes built by Habitat for Humanity, and other affordable housing organizations, it looks to me like my neighbors are mostly thriving.
According to a recent report released by the NC Budget and Tax Center, my county’s unemployment rate is low, its poverty rate is below the state average, and workers here make higher-than-average wages. Living in the Triangle, I’ve seen some wealth disparities, but overall I’d say my peers are doing well. We’re certainly better off than we were during the Great Recession several years ago.
But when I look at how my fellow Tarheels are faring in the mountains, or in the farmlands, or near the coast, it’s clear that we’re living in a divided state. Although Wake County residents earn more than $64,000 in annual household income, in our poorest county, Robeson, half of all families make less than $30,000 a year.
Less than an hour and half drive from our state capitol, Robeson County is home to Lumberton, an impoverished town where nearly a quarter of the residents lack health insurance. The majority of Robeson residents cannot afford a market-rate two-bedroom rental, and one third survive only with the help of state benefits such as food and care assistance.
I’ve travelled through much of North Carolina, but I can’t say I’ve ever made a point to stay over in Robeson. Consequently, I’ve formed an opinion of our state that’s incomplete. I look at friends who might have to borrow money to make a mortgage payment and I think I know what poverty is. In fact, I have been insulated from actual need by living in the broad swath of the Piedmont that benefits from high educational attainment, secure employment, and a surfeit of resources.
Although my family earns below our county’s median income, we have two vehicles, two jobs, and a pantry full of staples. It’s tempting for me to believe that since I make less than half the income of my county’s residents, I understand true need. Although I look at my neighbors and friends and see people who sometimes struggle, but most often persevere, it’s important that I remember not to apply a bootstrap mentality to those living in areas of true need, those who make due on less than I could imagine.
Although we share a state, a road system, and a government, those families in Robeson County, and other impoverished counties, are fighting a battle against poverty that I am privileged not to face. When I vote, contact my representatives, or advocate for causes, I must continually remind myself that I share this beautiful state with people whose lives don’t come close to resembling my own. And I need to make sure to listen closely, so that I hear their voices as well. Because every North Carolinian should have the right to be healthy, and should be able to live in their home, and feed their children.
How did your county fare in the NC Budget and Tax Center report? Were you surprised at the results?