ASHEVILLE, N.C. – When a tree fell in July 2016 and destroyed her family’s mobile home in Leicester, Kwana Bailey considered giving up.
Perhaps it was time to throw in the towel, the mother of six wondered. Maybe she should take her kids and camp out in front of social services until someone came to their aid.
Her landlord was refusing to fix the property, and being homeless for the second time was a setback she wasn’t sure she could handle.
Then, Bailey remembered why she cleaned up her act in the first place and called Homeward Bound of Western North Carolina.
She had a new home within a month and a higher-paying job in August of that year.
“My children, really, really, they were a big part of saving my life,” she said.
Bailey, 40, knows what it is like to grow up in poverty and pushes every day so her kids have a life different than hers.
The quest is no different than most parents – to want something better for the next generation.
In Buncombe County, however, rising child poverty rates are threatening this common goal and eroding the community’s health, social and economic potential.
More than 1 in 4 children lived in poverty in Asheville in 2015, a number that more than doubled in one year and now surpasses state and national trends. Despite the dramatic one-year increase, the truth is child poverty has been a challenge in Asheville for years. But it has skyrocketed in Buncombe.
Buncombe County saw a dramatic spike in child poverty, jumping from 13.6 percent of youth living below the federal poverty threshold in 2014 to 23.3 percent in 2015, according to new data released by the U.S. Census American Community Survey in September 2016. Since 2006, child poverty in the county has increased by 50 percent.
While the issue of child poverty has gotten worse at home, there have been modest drops nationally and statewide. Child poverty fell 4.3 percent in 2015 in the United States. In North Carolina it dropped 3.4 percent.
Across the country nearly 21 percent of the population under the age of 18 was living below the federal poverty threshold last year set at $12,082 for a single person and $25,257 for a family of four. Statewide, that number was 23.5 percent.
Youth experiencing poverty are more likely to come from single-parent households, to commit felonious crimes and to drop out of school, said the Rev. Micheal Woods, executive director of Western Carolina Rescue Ministries, the region’s largest provider of emergency shelter.
The mission recently went from 38 beds reserved for women and children to a 58-bed center in March of last year so families had a safe place to stay.
Since its opening, the women’s and children’s center has been full almost all the time, Woods said.
“Child poverty, that’s the one, if we’re going to make a concerted effort as a community and say, ‘How do we fix this? That’s the one we start with,” Woods said.
If people want a strong economy and thriving workforce, then the region has to look at the impact of poverty on people now and in the future, 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.
“When you think about the long-term impact as a collective community, it’s not just one poor hungry kid, it’s the whole classroom of poor hungry kids and one day those hungry kids are going to need to be able to take care of us and I want them to have everything they need.”
A Child’s Life
The percentage of children in poverty in Asheville in 2015 works out to a total number of 4,096. That’s slightly more than the entire population of Weaverville in 2012 and a little more than half of Fletcher’s population about three years ago.
In even starker terms, it’s only slightly less than the total number of students enrolled in the Asheville city school district.
When a child grows up poor, the young person is growing up in toxic stress, said Allison Jordan, executive director of Children First/ Communities in Schools, a nonprofit agency working to advocate and empower children and families living in poverty.
This profoundly affects their future.
The Centers for Disease Control-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, commonly called ACE, is one of the largest ongoing investigations of how childhood abuse and neglect impact health and well-being.
The study shows that stressful and traumatic childhood experiences, including poverty, cause social, emotional and cognitive impairments, impacting health, social and economic development.
It is like peeling back an onion, Jordan said. Poverty can prohibit everything from academic success to well-being.
For example, a child might be doing poorly in school because he’s struggling to stay awake, she said. This could be because he sleeps on the floor at home or because he never had breakfast.
“It’s not OK that we have children living in our community that are sleeping on floors and don’t have enough food to eat,” Jordan said.
The economic recovery from the Great Recession has been slow in Asheville, along with much of North Carolina, said Greg Borom, director of advocacy for Children First/Communities in Schools. There continues to be jobs in retail, services and hospitality with wages that may not move a family with children above the poverty line.
This is then compounded by an expensive housing market, Borom said. “This places more children in poverty at risk to experience multiple moves, evictions, doubling up, or homelessness. This can have negative impacts on their school attendance and success, as well as, physical and mental health.”
To build opportunity and reduce child poverty, the community must have a two-generational approach, he said.
“We need to provide opportunity pathways so that children experiencing poverty aren’t trapped there for their lifetimes,” he said.
This means doubling down on investments that improve maternal and child health, promote early learning and increase graduation rates, said Borom. It also means investing more in parents.
Parents need living wage jobs and support systems like child care vouchers, the earned income tax credit and paid sick days, he said. “We especially need investments in creating safe, connected neighborhoods where families can afford to live, work and play.”
A Pathway to Success
The State of American’s Children 2014 report published by the Children’s Defense Fund found that by increasing wages, supporting parental employment and expanding the social safety net, the United States could reduce child poverty by 60 percent — lifting 6.6 million children into a better socioeconomic class.
To sustain that progress, children need more access to affordable comprehensive health care, affordable high-quality early childhood education, high-performing schools and colleges, families and neighborhoods free from violence and economic opportunities for when they become young adults.
Among other policy changes, the researchers found that strengthening affordable housing programs, increasing the food stamp benefit and expanding access to child care subsidies will make a concrete difference.
Additional investments in housing assistance for poor families with children would reduce child poverty by 21 percent, the study shows.
In Buncombe, more than 2,100 people are on a waiting list with the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville for vouchers for subsidized rent on the private market or a spot in one of the city’s nine federally subsidized housing developments.
Families are waiting anywhere from three to six years, many with nowhere else to go.
Researchers also found that by increasing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit by 30 percent, child poverty would fall by 16 percent and more children would have their nutritional needs met.
Expanded access to child care subsidies to all poor and near-poor families would further reduce child poverty by 3 percent overall and by 11 percent for families with no income since it would make going to work possible, the Children’s Defense Fund finds.
In North Carolina, child care vouchers given to low-income families so parents can work are reserved only for the very poor, despite rising child care costs.
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.
Vouchers for assistance are given out when there is funding. Some people wait five months or longer for support.
The General Assembly has done a host of things to exacerbate poverty such as refusing to expand Medicaid, limiting who gets food stamps, slashing child care vouchers and preventing local governments from increasing the minimum wage, said Gene Nichol, professor of law at the UNC Chapel Hill and a founder of the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund.
This has all had a crushing impact on families living in poverty, he said. “The Legislature talks about tax cuts all the time, but, all told, they’ve raised the taxes of the bottom 40 percent while making huge giveaways to the wealthiest 5 percent.
“It’s a reverse Robin Hood regime.”
It’s also a shrinking of the safety net for the poor, for those who can rise out of poverty through second chances and for children trapped in poverty through no fault of their own.
A Parent’s Dream
When Bailey walked across the stage at her high school graduation pregnant, she didn’t know how she was ever going to get ahead.
Bailey was raised by her grandmother in Hillcrest Apartments, a federally subsidized housing project not far from Asheville’s bustling downtown.
Her mother wasn’t around. She never met her father. Her grandmother took her in, but died when Bailey was 14, leaving her behind.
Teachers, guidance counselors and social workers helped Bailey make it to graduation day.
They pushed her to apply for college and helped her shop for her dorm room when she was accepted into Bennett, a private four-year historically Black liberal arts college for women in Greensboro.
It was the night before move-in day when Bailey called her benefactors and told them she wouldn’t be going. She was pregnant and in love. Bailey was going to start her own family. She hoped it would fill the void her grandmother left behind.
The relationship with her first child’s father, however, didn’t work out and Bailey’s struggles continued. By the age of 32, she had six kids. Destitute and desperate, she started stealing diapers, food and toys.
She was arrested multiple times. She once spent 45 days in jail for felony larceny. When the family became homeless, Bailey knew she had to change her life.
“I had to make a choice and I had all these little kids looking at me, depending on me and needing me in their lives,” she said. “It was either I deal with this and get help, or leave them, but I knew (if I did that) their lives would be 10 times worse than what I experienced.”
A Community of Caring
Bailey found job training with Green Opportunities. She found housing with Homeward Bound of Western North Carolina. When a tree fell on the family’s mobile home, she sought emergency assistance from Eblen Charities. The list goes on.
Without a community behind her, Bailey says she would never had made it. And if she doesn’t make it, neither do her children.
“I really had to learn my worth and stay surrounded and stay connected with good people and good things,” she said. “I know that I won’t be the only one affected by this cycle, and I’m telling you this is our way out.”
Every morning Bailey carpools to Swannanoa where she works as a home health care aide. It’s a new job that allows her more time with her children and higher wages.
Even though she struggles, bringing in less than $20,000 a year, Bailey remains hopeful. Her kids are doing well in school and she works with them nightly on their homework.
“I’m being a role model,” she said. “My children, they see mom goes to work, that mom is trying to be better.”
It’s all about connecting people, said Courtney Crenshaw, student support specialist at Children First / Communities in Schools. For a child to be strong, their parent need to be strong, their school needs to be strong, their community needs to be strong.
If children have the opportunity to imagine a new way of being, they can propel themselves forward, she said.
Crenshaw spent four years building a bridge for low-income families to their children’s schools. She would go so far as offer parents rides to campus and loaning them her cell phone so they could connect with teachers.
The idea is to understand and to address the underlying issue impacting a child’s academic performance and to make sure basic needs are being met, she said. This can mean anything from finding a child clothing and food boxes to making sure their parents know when they aren’t coming in class.
The problem is not the child’s. It belongs to the adults. “We need to invest in children,” she said. “If we don’t invest in children then we’re not investing in what’s next.”
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. The top image is of Monte Brooks, 10, shows off his dance moves to other kids in the Children First/Communities in Schools after-school program at Pisgah View Apartments on Sept. 20, 2016. (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.