The Face of Poverty
Since the onset of the national recession in 2008, economic
conditions in Western North Carolina have been labeled unstable at best, but recent comparisons by
poverty awareness officials indicate Watauga County is faring much worse than expected.
Despite a lower than average unemployment rate when paired with surrounding counties, Watauga County now holds the third highest rating for citizens living in impoverished circumstances statewide.
The Cold Facts
To be exact, 29 percent of all locals are living in poverty, according to U.S. Census data.
To put the numbers in perspective, this is 10 and 11 percentage points higher than neighboring Ashe and Avery counties, respectively. Watauga trails only Robeson and Scotland counties for tops statewide. Those coastal plain counties ranked over the 30 percent mark.
Ten years ago, the poverty rate in Watauga County was only 15 percent.
Single mothers were hit particularly hard since the recession, as 35 percent of this demographic was classified as living in impoverished conditions.
The impact of poverty and food scarcity has also been felt further down to the most innocent of victims — children.
According to Todd Carter, director of development at Hospitality House of Boone, Watauga County’s transitional housing and emergency shelter program that also provides food bank services, 70 percent of children in the western section of the county are currently receiving free or reduced school lunches.
On average, this same group of children receives less than one full meal a day during the summer months, Carter said.
The reach of economic despair is not limited to the rural portion of the county, as Boone’s own Hardin Park Elementary had 45 homeless children enrolled in classes as of last school year, Carter said. About 12 of those students found temporary shelter at Hospitality House, which is the only shelter of its kind in the seven-county mountain region it serves.
“That leaves the question, ‘Where were the rest?’” Carter said.
Many of the High Country’s homeless population remain invisible by finding refuge in hotel rooms, tents in wooded areas and couch-surfing from house to house, he said.
“You don’t really see poverty here,” Carter said. “You have to drive off King Street to see it. You have to go out Highway 421… You see it at night, driving from Ashe County. You see these flashlights and candles flickering in abandoned houses and barns. It’s right in front of your face.”
Poverty’s numbers are exacerbated during the colder months. During the sub-zero cold snap earlier this year, Hospitality House’s dining area was full of extra cots, and all 68 beds were taken.
“We asked the county what the emergency plan was (for the colder than usual weather), and they didn’t have one,” Carter said.
Some skeptics of the rising poverty rate blame Appalachian State University’s student population for potentially skewing the numbers and making the rate much higher than what it really is.
Carter maintains that the “poor college kid” adage doesn’t hold much merit here.
“To say that the biggest employer in the county is why we have high poverty — that just doesn’t make much sense,” he said. “We are really that much higher… it’s not a phantom problem.”
U.S. Census data backs up his claims.
Other counties with a medium regional university fared better than Watauga when measuring poverty.
Jackson County, which is home to Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, holds a poverty rating of 19.5 percent, and Pitt County, which supports East Carolina University, is a distant second, with a rate of 24 percent, according to census data.
People tend to think urban areas are riddled with issues of homelessness and poverty, but this, too, is a misnomer, as cites are not always synonymous with societal ills, Carter said.
The Charlotte and Raleigh metro areas currently hold rates of 16 percent, and Durham fared slightly better at 19 percent, according to census data.
The Real Culprit
Carter believes the most pressing factors contributing to Watauga County’s rocketing poverty rate is double-edged and linked more closely to the lack of affordable housing and full-time employment.
“It’s an issue of the haves and have-nots,” Carter said bluntly.
The living wage in Watauga County for one adult with two kids is $24.05 for the one working adult. For two adults in a family of four, the living wage means that both parents must make $19.41 an hour, and, as Carter put it, there just aren’t those types of jobs in Watauga County.
By definition, living wage is how much it takes to live in Watauga County once you figure in food, shelter, medical expenses and transportation. The stipend for housing, however, is $750 per month.
“Where in Watauga County can you live for that where the paint isn’t peeling off the walls,” Carter asked.
The poverty rate for one adult with three kids is $10.60 per hour.
“How many people trying to get out of poverty are finding a job that pays $20 an hour?” Carter said. “That still doesn’t get them to where they need to be. When you compare our poverty rate with the average living wage and average income, we are way off.”
To help alleviate the effects of poverty, Carter believes the county first needs jobs that pay people a living wage.
“Back last spring, a lot of people here at the Hospitality House were finding jobs,” Carter said. “There was a lot of energy around here, but that quickly turned to dejection, because a lot of these corporate businesses were only offering 10 hours a week … that barely covers the costs of their uniform in the first paycheck. For a lot of people, it just wasn’t worth it.”
The addition of another food bank, hopefully in the western part of the county, could also help temporarily numb the sting of hunger and serve as a stopgap measure, Carter said.
Watauga County currently has five food banks. “The more food pantries you have, the more food you can get,” Carter said.
Success Amidst Despair
Despite the rising number of people living in poverty in Watauga County, Hospitality House has found an unprecedented amount of success stories among temporary residents who have turned their lives around.
Currently, Hospitality House’s transitional program is reporting that 93 percent of residents who come into the shelter are leaving the site for stable, long-term housing. The average stay for residents of the transitional program is 29 days.
Meanwhile, 79 percent of those who come into the emergency shelter find that same type of success.
The ability for these people to rewrite their life story, so to speak, can be attributed to a variety of factors and programs.
Carter said former residents of the transitional program and shelter found help through parenting counseling, self-esteem building, finding daycare and other life-building activities, all of which help these people find affordable housing and a future.
“We are really changing lives,” Carter said. “They are not out of poverty, but they are no longer homeless. Our other programs help keep them moving forward out of poverty.”
The Face of Hunger
Finding clean, dry shelter for hundreds of homeless High Country residents is only a small part of the battle.
This is where the Hospitality House’s Bread of Life Kitchen comes into play, food services coordinator Allison Jennings said.
The kitchen offers 11,000 meals per month to those in need, in addition to 800 people in the food box programs.
Jennings stressed that the food pantry and kitchen is not a hand-out, but hand up.
The community kitchen also offers self-help programs, like a six-week course to teach individuals how to make the most of the food and how to cook wisely. The class is open to everyone.
“We work with nutritionists from ASU to serve as instructors,” Jennings said. “We couldn’t do any of this without community partners.”
“We are very diligent in forming these partnerships,” Carter said.
Additionally, the community kitchen offers an internship program for residents to teach them real life skills for finding a job in the workforce. "Our kitchen is always looking for ways to expand,” Jennings said.
Moving forward, Jennings said it is one of her goals to allocate a grant to help fund the summer feeding program. Jennings said she was successful in getting participation from the Watauga County Schools system for the western end of the county.
Altogether, each program Hospitality House offers is part of a greater package to help reduce the county’s poverty rate. “We are offering people the opportunity to rewrite their lives,” Carter said.
Hospitality House is located at 338 Brook Hollow Road in Boone. For more information, call (828) 264-1237, or visit http://www.hospitalityhouseofboone.org.