Thursday, January 09, 2014

Clarifying Durham Poverty

It doesn’t take away from the importance of such an issue that news stories comparing the poverty rates in various cities and counties in North Carolina nearly always fail to index the percentages.

A question was raised in the Raleigh paper on New Year’s Day about why Durham’s poverty rate is higher than Raleigh and Cary’s.

If when reported, the percentages had been indexed to ethnic make-up, the more obvious question would have probably been, “Why are poverty rates in Raleigh and Cary so high.

Give or take, Durham’s rate of 19.4% is about three points higher than Raleigh’s and Cary’s but Durham is also a significantly much more diverse community.

This is noteworthy because poverty rates in North Carolina for African American and Latino residents are two and a half times that for Caucasians.  Durham is, respectively, as much as three times more diverse than Cary or Raleigh.

Just as puzzling is why so many people are disturbed by the poverty rate when they move to Durham from Greensboro.  They are seemingly unaware that the poverty rate there is as high or even higher.

Perhaps the misperceptions are fueled by the tendency of Durham residents to talk more openly and passionately about issues it wants to improve.

This is also why in the mid-1990s, to avoid being caught up with just headlines, Durham officials followed the lead of its agency for visitor-centric economic and cultural development and began to benchmark community comparisons against a comp set of communities across the state and nation.

This is a best practice means of not just explaining away issues, but putting them in a context where true anomalies can be readily detected which would otherwise be clouded by passions or news headlines.

Unfortunately, this benchmarking approach has not been applied broadly or deeply enough.  Not only has it been neglected in reference to problems such as poverty, but also areas such as cultural facilities, urban forestry and overall community curb appeal.

Even where they have been effectively applied in areas such as crime and school scores, often the results have not been used strategically to buffer problem-solvers from news reports which according to analysts, are only slightly biased toward negative news but heavily biased toward extremes.

An example in Durham is the media’s obsession with crimes and rates of crime, particularly violent crimes such as homicides. Durham is not exceptional or out of the norm in its overall crime or its violent crime, so it diverts officials from addressing types of crimes where it is above the norm, such as burglary and robbery.

While the communities weren’t indexed for variables, the report by a long-time Durham resident and columnist in the Raleigh paper was loaded with useful context to inform yesterday’s 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty.

In 1960, four years before that declaration, 4-in-10 North Carolinians lived in poverty, including nearly 1-in-3 Durham County residents.

We can debate whether the programs responsible for wiping out so much poverty need to be perpetually overhauled or have become too brittle, or whether they were shortchanged, but the fact that they made a huge difference seems indisputable.

Another view of the statistics shows that poverty levels in America dropped precipitously from 1959 to 1970 before efforts to eradicate it became politicized and gridlocked.

Not coincidentally, in my opinion as a political Independent, this is also the time span where we invested heavily to broaden the middle class.  Maybe it would be worthwhile revising that span for solutions to help get back on track.

The answers still aren’t clear to me although I’ve read and thought about the issue a lot.  But as conservative critic Joe Queenan, who was raised in poverty, has written so eloquently, “Poverty is a pathologically enduring, immutable condition. Not a lifestyle choice.”

So I wasn’t at all surprised that the mandatory drug testing conservatives sought to impose (to varying degrees) in 30 states found that only 2.6 percent of poor people receiving public assistance tested positive for drugs compared to 8.7 of the general population.

The rate testing positive was as low as 1.2 percent or less in some states, leading one policy analyst to refer to this testing as “a bad cure in search of a problem.”

Similar analysis has found that poor people are less likely to turn to crime than those with much higher incomes.  We also know now that the stereotypes used to demonize the poor in the late 1970s and 1980s were misleading.

Far too much brain power is being wasted on playing ideological offence and defense at the expense of the poor.   We can do better, and we must do better, because “there, but for the grace of God” go any of us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this informative post. Is there a centralised federal or state website where crime, poverty, and educational data can be publicly accessed and explored?