Elizabeth Cook: Work & poverty not mutually exclusive

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 10, 2016

The typical person living in poverty in Rowan County is not a single mother at Clancy Hills with a crack-slinging, live-in boyfriend.

As county commissioners brainstormed last week about factors holding the  economy back, Commissioner Craig Pierce threw a couple of thunderbolts by painting that mental picture.

Can thunderbolts boomerang?

Pierce blamed much of Rowan’s problems on Salisbury and its public housing “enticing” the poor to live here. And he suggested anyone who does not own property was a drag on the supposed 42 percent who do.

“It’s not fair to put taxes on 42 percent of the residents and say, ‘Y’all pull the wagon while we keep stacking rocks in the back of it,” Pierce said. He could qualify as a more colorful Mitt Romney or a less flamboyant Donald Trump.

I hear some people in Rowan County applauding. Agreed, property taxes are crucial to the county budget. But people who own their own homes and land are not the only ones paying those taxes. If you pay rent, your landlord includes that cost in your rent.

Everyone pays sales tax. And living in poverty is no vacation.

Pierce is right about this: Too many people have to depend (or choose to depend, in some cases) on the government for food and shelter. But they are a diverse crowd — and poverty is a complex problem.

Pierce was wilier than the Maine governor who complained last week about drug dealers who visit his fine state and, according to him,  “half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave.”

Pierce did not mention race. But minorities make up much of the Clancy Hills population. Pierce stepped squarely on the toes of people he’s been trying to convince he was on their side.

Will the real Craig Pierce please stand up? I think he just did.

Pierce has created an opportunity for the entire community to open its eyes to the reality of 21st century poverty. It affects a broad swath of the population.

Instead of identifying poverty by where people live, you could just as well identify it by the kind of jobs they hold. Thousands of people slave away at low-wage jobs — waiters and store clerks, hotel maids and farm workers — yet still qualify for public assistance.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 75.8 percent of the N.C. households that received food stamps in 2012  had at least one employed wage earner during the past year. More than 26 percent had two wage-earners in the household.

Only 24.2 percent had no wage earner.

Let’s talk about race. The U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies race according to the head of the household. The agency says 43.9 percent of the North Carolina households receiving food stamps in 2014 were white, 45 percent were black and 1.9 percent were Hispanic.

Nationally, whites make up the majority of the people in poverty. The problem is that many of the policy makers and opinion leaders who talk about poverty are middle class whites who rely on stereotypes that were never fair and are now outdated.

Here are a few points from Ruby Payne’s book, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty.” She calls them “Myths about Poverty and Wealth”:

• Poverty belongs to minorities. Fact: Sixty-seven percent of all individuals in poverty in the United States are white.

• People in poverty are lazy. Fact: Actually, people in poverty are often problem solvers with limited resources who may or may not have the knowledge bases, tools, bridging social capital and transportation to be employed.

• Your IQ is lower if you are poor. Fact: IQ is largely a measure of acquired knowledge. If your environment does not provide that knowledge or vocabulary, you cannot show evidence of it on a test.

There’s much more.

At any rate, Rowan County cannot wish away residents who live in poverty, nor drive them away with insults. Sure, some are poor because they make bad decisions. But others are poor because of layoffs, illness, accidents, family problems, addiction or any number of problems — problems that can seem insurmountable.

Instead of passing judgment on people struggling below the poverty line, let’s make sure they have the opportunity to improve their lot in life.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.