ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Eric Howell holds painful memories of his futile treks up and down Asheville’s thoroughfares looking for work.
He pleaded with hiring managers at fast-food restaurants, grocery chains and retail stores.
He said he was a hard worker, that he had children to feed and that he just wanted a paycheck in exchange for a day of labor. Even staffing agencies turned him away.
“It was just no, no, no,” said Howell, a 28-year-old Brevard native who moved back to Western North Carolina’s urban center in 2009 to make a better life for himself.
He eventually landed work as a construction job training instructor at Green Opportunities, an Asheville-based nonprofit organization focused on providing vocational training to people with low incomes.
But the job isn’t a golden ticket. Howell and his family still live in poverty, struggling to stay afloat and earning little in an increasingly expensive city.
Howell makes less than $400 a week in exchange for at least 35 hours of work. He and his family live in Pisgah View Apartments, one of the city’s largest federally subsidized housing developments.
The complex of 600-plus residents sits three miles and a world apart from Asheville’s downtown, where cranes loom over the latest hotel projects and tourists sip craft beer that costs $5 a pint.
In a city where a developer has plans for studio apartments renting for more than $800 a month across the street from a homeless shelter, Asheville’s poor are increasingly being hidden in plain sight.
Howell was among 37,000 people identified in Buncombe County by the U.S. Census Bureau as living below the federal poverty threshold in 2015, set last year at $12,082 for a single individual and $25,257 for a family of four.
That amounts to just over one in six people in Buncombe County living in poverty in 2015, a 20 percent increase from the year prior and up 44 percent since 2006.
Nearly 17 percent of the population in Asheville lived in poverty in 2015, a 32 percent gain from 2014, according to the American Community Survey data released in September.
Poverty’s impact is widespread. It hurts all families, those in need and those without. And, despite state and national trends showing otherwise, in Western North Carolina poverty is growing at a time when the government’s safety net is shrinking.
Poverty crushes opportunity, said Gene Nichol, professor of law at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and a founder of the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund.
It robs communities of their full, productive potential — literally leaving thousands marginalized and excluded, he said.
“Poverty is North Carolina’s largest challenge even though it almost never makes its way into our politics or our larger discussions.”
Many people who live in poverty stay in poverty. Their children stay in poverty. Their neighborhoods stay in poverty. The situation requires a public and personal response.
Higher wages, better benefits and more affordable housing is needed. So, too, is compassion and respect, those who work with the poor say.
“It is such a daunting task to think that we can totally eliminate poverty. But there are things that we can do to lessen the burden of those less fortunate by reaching out and sharing what we have no matter how small we think it might be,” said Bill Murdock, executive director of Eblen Charities, one the region’s largest crisis service providers.
“Not just compassion by what we say and the meetings we attend, but by giving and showing kindness and helping those in need. That is something we all can do.”
An Uphill Battle
Howell wakes up at 6:30 a.m. on weekdays to help get his four daughters ready for school. He watches the youngest while his girlfriend walks the older ones to the bus stop.
He, too, takes public transportation to work. As long as traffic is light, Howell can get to his job three miles away in less than an hour.
Like Howell and his girlfriend, a housekeeper at the Aloft Asheville Downtown hotel, nearly 60 percent of people living in poverty and over the age of 16 in Asheville last year worked full or part time in the previous 12 months.
“People say we’re lazy, but when we get up and try to get out there and do it, it’s like a door stops every single time,” Howell said. “The more you try, the more you hit failure. It’s discouraging.”
Howell isn’t alone.
This region can’t build shelter fast enough to accommodate what is coming, said Micheal Woods, executive director of Western Carolina Rescue Ministries, the largest emergency shelter provider in the region.
“It’s no longer (people) are one paycheck away from being in poverty, they are in poverty and that paycheck doesn’t have the ability to bring them out,” he said.
The struggle in WNC to find adequate wages, affordable housing, child care and other basic needs is widespread.
- The minimum wage is set at $7.25 an hour, but Just Economics of Western North Carolina calculates workers need a living wage of at least $11 an hour to get by. The living wage for one person in WNC is $12.50 an hour without employer-provided health insurance, or $11 an hour with health insurance. This amounts to $22,800 to $26,000 a year for full-time employment.
- Child care vouchers given to low-income families so parents can work are reserved only for the very poor, despite rising child care costs. Vouchers for assistance are given out when there is funding. Some people wait five months or longer for support. The average fee in Buncombe County for a five-star child care center offering early education to children ages 3 to 5 is $750 a month.
- Housing is even harder to come by. One of the largest providers of affordable housing in the region, the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, has a list of more than 2,100 people waiting anywhere from six months to three years for vouchers for subsidized rent on the private market or a spot in one of the city’s nine federally subsidized housing developments.
- And, despite that more than 107,000 people sought food assistance in 16 WNC counties in 2013, the average food stamp benefit in Buncombe is $3.83 per person per day.
“It’s not just get a job, find some money and everything will be fine,” said Carey Gibson, the former economic development department director for Community Action Opportunities, a nonprofit offering health, education and family support services in Buncombe, Madison and McDowell counties.
“That’s a simplistic and inaccurate way to look at poverty.”
Systems such as predatory lending are set up to take advantage of people who live with lower incomes, she said. What people do in the moment to try and survive, and what seems like a decision to get ahead, can put someone even further behind.
“It’s two steps forward and 10 steps back,” Gibson continued. “Yes, I got this really great job, but now my car has died and I don’t have a support system, or a savings account and I don’t live on the bus line.”
Community Action Opportunities, like many other nonprofit and social service providers in the region focused on poverty alleviation, works to give people living in poverty a voice, to undo harm and to educate.
The goal is to advocate for them and work with them so they have the skills to advocate for themselves, Gibson said. “This idea that any of us have gotten to where we are solely by our own individual effort is wrong.”
Asheville resident Cass Kunst said his family wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for a $650 monthly benefit with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as food stamps.
Kunst, 50, moved his wife and two daughters to Asheville in 2009 to open a comfort food restaurant and blues bar. The business plan failed and the family of four was out $85,000.
“When the rug came out from under us there, we were at the social service office and they are asking me what my income is,” Kunst recalled as he glided back and forth on a porch swing at the family’s West Asheville home.
His voice cracks as he chokes back tears. “They are looking at what it was, but what it is, is zero.”
“It was a very sobering moment,” he said. “I had to look around. I had no resources. I had no friends. I had no network of support so the network of support I could look to was the food stamps program.”
“It made all the difference,” said Kunst, who is now employed at Harry’s on the Hill, a Buick GMC Cadillac dealership not far from his home. “I was affected. I was benefited. I will advocate for people who need it in the future.”
The Welfare Myth
There is a lot of rhetoric about people living in poverty, but most people are simply looking for a hand up, not a hand out, said Phillip Hardin, public assistance director for Buncombe County Health and Human Services. It is a public responsibility to provide that.
North Carolina has stringent requirements for who can get public benefits, said Hardin. Complex formulas taking into account income and family size determine eligibility. Not everyone gets the help they need.
People have this idea that thousands are living off the rolls of the welfare, getting a check every month from the government. Yet in reality, ever since welfare reform, the passing of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, the program now is very small, Hardin said.
In Buncombe, where some 37,000 people live below the federal poverty threshold, 423 are enrolled in welfare, which is now called Work First Employment Service, he said.
Sixty-seven percent are child-only cases, Hardin added, meaning that a family is receiving the benefit on behalf of a minor that is not their own.
The actual monetary payout is limited, he said. A family of three, for example, say a mother and her two children, would only receive $272 a month. ”A month!” he said. “That’s for a three-person household.”
“It’s a misnomer,” Hardin said. “It’s not a lot of money.”
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the largest public benefit impacting people in poverty, Hardin said. It is also much smaller than people believe.
For the 33,768 people enrolled in SNAP in Buncombe County, the average payout is $3.83 per person per day, he said.
The program is also not open to everybody.
Nearly 45 percent of people identifying as Hispanic or Latino in Buncombe County were living in poverty in 2015, yet those who did not enter this country legally were not eligible.
There is also a five-year waiting period for SNAP benefits for immigrants who are here legally to enroll, Hardin said.
Qualifying for help takes time, resources and transportation, things that are often out of reach to the poorest among us, said Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics of Western North Carolina, the nonprofit set up to educate, advocate and organize for a just and sustainable economy.
“Even a single person can barely put a roof over their head and food on their table with the living wage, so if you are making less than that you need to have some type of public assistance, private assistance or creative solution to your economic challenges,” Meath said.
“People are struggling, they are trying, trying to move out of poverty, but running into those barriers and then getting blamed, stereotyped and discriminated against.”
An Unequal System
Of the 133,100 people living under the poverty threshold in WNC in 2014, women, children and minority populations are hardest hit.
Forty-six percent of those living in poverty were male; 54 percent were female. Thirty percent were younger than 18.
Unlike the stereotypes often perpetuated of a poor, rural and white Appalachia, people of color were impacted disproportionately.
Forty-one percent of African-Americans, 34 percent of American Indians or Alaskan natives and 38 percent of people identifying as Hispanic or Latino were struggling to make ends meet.
In total, 36 percent of the region’s minority races were living in poverty in 2014 as opposed to 16 percent of their white peers.
The trend is consistent in both urban and rural environments.
Fifty percent of the residents living in the subsidized housing neighborhoods managed by the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, for example, are African-American, yet in 2015 only 9.1 percent of the region’s most populated city identified as Black.
In more rural areas, like Mitchell and Swain counties, an estimated 100 percent of the African-American population in 2014 lived in poverty. And although the number of Black residents in these areas may be smaller, the perception is constant.
For some people of color, poverty is all they see, said Woods, who is African-American and grew up in a family that struggled to make ends meet in a predominately low-income Black neighborhood.
Often in those small towns the mills closed or the local industry went away, but the people didn’t, the shelter director added. The choice to stay behind can perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
“We want to say, ‘Why do they stay?’ But, their thing would be (to say), ’To go where and to do what?’
“It is easier to stay where you know then to go into the unknown.”
Even the unknown has its limits.
Fleeing an abusive relationship, Rebecca Kingston, 38, moved back to Buncombe County with a baby when she was 33 years old.
She returned to the town of Weaverville, where she was raised. Kingston had little money and no work, but earned a Spanish degree and was sure she could put it to use.
It took nearly a year for Kingston to find a job with the Verner Center for Early Learning’s Early Head Start program, working with low-income Hispanic families needing preschool education for their children.
Her salary was so low that her daughter was able to enroll in the federally subsidized benefit.
“What I learned from this job is (poverty) can look like pretty much anything,” she said. “There are plenty of us who are working and have been to school or completed some level of education, but circumstances, things, just don’t turn out the way we expected.”
“There is such a horrible stigma attached to being labeled as ‘low-income,” Kingston continued. “So many of us fall into that category and I think we’re all much better equipped to move forward when we’re able to focus on what we have in common, despite how different our situations may look on the surface.”
Buncombe County has become the center of job creation in WNC, and it has seen a significant increase in leisure, hospitality and tourism-related jobs, said Tom Tveidt, head of Syneva Economics. Those jobs have relatively lower wages, he said.
These positions lack upward mobility and make it nearly impossible for people to move to higher socioeconomic classes, Woods said.
Seventy-one percent of the people staying in the dormitories at the Buncombe County rescue mission go to work every day, he added.
Working parents not staying at the shelter frequently bring their children in to eat two or three times a week.
“We don’t have a homeless problem, we have a poverty issue,” said Woods. ”If we don’t look at it from the poverty standpoint, all we’re going to do is attack the symptom.”
As he hugs his daughter on their door step, Howell can’t help but wonder how much of his background has to do with his struggle.
At first glance, Howell fits the stereotype so often projected on the urban poor.
He is Black. He once wore dreadlocks. Some would say he lives in a bad part of town. Even though he now has his G.E.D., Howell was a high school dropout. He spent time in prison on misdemeanor theft and property damage charges before moving to Asheville from Spartanburg, South Carolina, to start a new life.
What people don’t see, however, is that Howell had to declare himself a homeless student when he was a junior in high school. His mother was an addict and his father was incarcerated when he was 8. Howell basically raised himself.
The male role models in Howell’s life were his stepfather and the young men hanging around the housing project where he lived. Howell’s stepfather worked all the time and Howell said he spent his days idolizing the other men in the neighborhood.
They would give Howell food and clothes, but they also sold drugs. That was their way of making it. And, for much of Howell’s life, that was his way of making it, too.
But people change, and Howell likes to remind those around him of the phrase, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
The solutions to poverty are widespread, he said. Yes, people need higher wages and more affordable housing. They need a social safety net that props them up. They also need compassion and respect.
Instead of stereotyping the poor, get to know them, Howell said. Learn their stories and the hurdles they had to overcome. Then, turn that into action.
Employers can hire people of color, he said. Landlords can rent to people with criminal records.
See beyond past misgivings, and instead look for potential.
“Some of us want to be out of here worse than y’all want us out of here,” Howell said. “Y’all just don’t give us a chance. Give us a chance.”
Beth Walton, a 2015 Equal Voice Journalism Fellow, is the social issues reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times, the regional daily newspaper serving Western North Carolina. On Twitter, she is @BethWaltonACT. The top image shows Eric Howell and his daughter (photo by Angeli Wright/Asheville Citizen-Times). This story and photograph, which are part of the “People and Poverty” series, first appeared in that publication. They are reprinted with permission.