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ECU Professor: Poverty rates higher east

Washington Daily News
By JONATHAN CLAYBORNE, News Editor

This may not come as a great surprise to many North Carolinians who live east of Interstate 95, but high poverty levels apparently are more of an endemic problem in rural and coastal North Carolina than in some other areas of the state, excluding anomalous pockets of metropolitan growth.

That's the salient message of analysis completed by Mulatu Wubneh, a professor at East Carolina University in Greenville.

Wubneh, the chairman of ECU's Department of Planning, said the data he compiled quantify the economic issues that people who live in this area have been talking about for years.

By analyzing U.S. Census Bureau information spanning the 30-year period from 1970 through 2000, the professor found that 90 percent of the 41 counties in Eastern North Carolina traditionally suffer from a poverty rate above the state average.

Most of the region's counties have poverty rates of 15 to 24 percent, reads a press release summarizing the ECU report. In Beaufort County in 2000, the percentage of individuals living below the poverty level was 19.5, according to the Census Bureau. The percentage of families living below the poverty level was 15.2 percent. Statewide, the average among all counties was 12.3 percent.

Though the Coastal Plain, Piedmont and the mountains all have reduced their poverty rates during the past three decades, eastern counties have experienced difficulties reaching the state average, according to Wubneh. In fact, his analysis reveals, chasms between upper-income people and lower-income residents have begun to shrink in places apart from rural and coastal locales.

The entire state has done "a tremendous job of reducing poverty, narrowing the income difference over a period of time, the past 30 years," the professor said during an interview. "The problem starts showing up when you start looking at the data by region, by rural, urban counties."

Though he noted state programs are in place to deal with poverty, Wubneh maintained the state should examine more comprehensively the effectiveness of those programs on a regional level, rather than taking a broad-brush view of statewide performance.

"There are all these programs that have been implemented by the state at some point," Wubneh said. "I just wanted to see what had been the impact of those policies."

The professor initially set out to test an economic theory, but he indicated he eventually uncovered something more profound in the east's general lag in growth compared to the rest of the state.

"Turned out I found this aspect much more interesting than the theory," he said.

In a development not directly related to the professor's findings, the Program for Rural Carolinas and Duke University's Terry Sanford Institute for Public Policy have announced plans to launch "a progressive look at poverty" through the lens of four North Carolina counties.

Beaufort County is one of the four that have been selected for the study, related Bianca Gentile, director of the Beaufort County office of the Program for the Rural Carolinas.

The team carrying out the research will conduct interviews with 80 people in four communities affected by poverty, Gentile said.

Two people from Beaufort County will attend courses at the Sanford institute for five days, enabling them to return as "educated field guides," she said.

A public policy expert and Duke graduate students will conduct the interviews, according to Gentile.

"It's that participatory approach that I think really makes the study unique," she commented.

The interviewers will make inquiries about the causes of poverty -- how people fall into that state and how, or if, the subjects arise from it, Gentile stated.

"The big goal is to understand what are the roots of poverty, why do people stay in poverty and how can we help them move out of it," she said.

The program's approach won't result in an evaluation of state initiatives aimed at combating poverty, but will take into consideration the fact that state assets geared toward improving quality of life are available, whether people know about those programs and, if not, why they are not aware of those programs.

By contrast, Wubneh's analysis forwards the idea that the economic disparities between the east and other portions of the state, in the words of an ECU press release, "has to do with the lack of infrastructure (such as certain utilities, highways) and industry ... and state policies that fail to target region-specific issues."

Yet, Wubneh said he did not delve specifically into the failure or success of state programs because, "The problem is the data is not really that easy to put together." Often, a mix of state, federal and local government funds are spent on public projects, he pointed out.

Wubneh said he might at some point attempt to mine data on the influence of state programs. In the meantime, he said, local leaders, lawmakers and community members need to understand that income gaps exist between area residents and their counterparts in other regions.

Otherwise, he suggested, the severity of the poverty problem might worsen.

Beaufort County Commissioner Stan Deatherage, who frequently criticizes social programs, sees an opportunity to guide people toward pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

"You know, poverty seems to be a systemic problem within certain environments," Deatherage said. "Those environments appear to be families that have struggled and, sometimes, lost that struggle, and ultimately become disinterested in bettering their place in life. In my opinion, if there was some way to study the way to instill the promise that is American capitalism within these impoverished environmental groups, then that could be beneficial."