With a poverty rate of 22.8 percent, Robeson's rate was almost double the state average of 12.3 percent. The county trailed only Halifax County, which led the state with a 23.9 percent rate, Bertie County at 23.5 percent and Tyrell County at 23.3 percent. Columbus County's poverty rate was fifth at 22.7 percent.
Although the county's poverty rate was lower in 2000 than it was in 1990 -- when the rate was 23.6 percent -- the number of individuals living in poverty increased by 2,587. During that span, the county's population grew by 18,160.
Mohammad Ashraf, an assistant professor of economics at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, says a lack of infrastructure and an untrained labor force are to blame for the county's high poverty rate. The county's unemployment rate has hovered around 12 percent for months and is among the highest in the state.
"If we don't have that, we won't be able to attract businesses," Ashraf said. "We don't have businesses; they are leaving the area. If you look at the other factors that normally attract businesses -- the weather is good, you don't have that high cost of operating a business that you would in an area where there's a lot of snow -- but there are still businesses not willing to stay here."
Ashraf says the trend of textiles and other companies leaving the county for foreign shores is not a legitimate reason for the county's poverty rate to be the fourth highest in the state.
"In the long run, that's not going to hurt," he said. "From an economist's point of view, that's not an argument. Businesses will go wherever it's more profitable; businesses don't have geographic boundaries. In the early '70s and '60s, the textiles companies moved from New England to the South.
"The point that we need to focus on is that specialization is the order of the day. We need to produce those goods and services we are better at."
Ashraf says another reason the county's poverty rate is so high is that "people here are not willing to leave the nest."
"They don't really feel like moving to bigger cities and bigger towns to find better jobs," he said. "Even students who graduate over here (at UNC-Pembroke) want to stay in the area so they don't have to move.
"Since there aren't many businesses to begin with, the wage rates of those graduates is lowered. Again, you get into the vicious cycle of poverty, which sort of keeps us in that realm."
In 2000, a family of four that earned $17,603 per year or less was considered impoverished. In 1990, the poverty threshold for a family of four was $13,359.
In 2000, the poverty threshold for a family of five was $20,819. For families of nine or more, the threshold was $35,060.
For families of one and two, the threshold is broken down for people younger than and older than 65. For families of one, the threshold was $8,959 for those younger than 65 and $8,259 for those 65 and older. For families of two, it's $11,590 for those younger than 65 and $10,419 for those 65 and older.
Ashraf, who moved to the county from Illinois three years ago, said he was surprised to see how many high school students in the county have had children. He said when high school students have babies, it's harder for them to graduate on time and it often leads to young parents taking "trivial" jobs.
According to the census, Ashraf's point is legitimate.
More than 60 percent of the county's impoverished families -- 3,816 -- are headed by single mothers, 89 percent of whom have children under 18. The number of single mothers in the county has increased by 13 percent since 1990, when the census reported 3,304 in the county. In 1990, 91 percent of the county's single mothers living in poverty had children under 18.
According to David Wood, the program administrator of Child Support at the Department of Social Services, the increased number of single mothers has coincided with an increased amount of unpaid child support. Wood said his department doesn't have statistics showing how much child support went unpaid in 1990, but he says the amount has increased through the years. There are currently more than 14,794 child-support cases in the county. As of June 28, deadbeat Robeson County parents owed a total of $31.9 million in late payments, an average of $2,160 per child-support case.
"The main thing with the unpaid child support is the children are the ones who suffer," Wood said. "What makes it difficult for us is when we're unable to locate these people."
According to Wood, the job his staff faces is made harder by county budget constraints, which have left his department understaffed. Wood says the Child Support program would need eight to 10 more full-time workers to meet the state's suggested caseload criteria.
The county's Child Support office isn't the only Social Services department feeling the strain. Allyson Martin, the county's Medicaid manager, says the number of impoverished families and individuals is one reason the county's Medicaid bill has risen from about $2 million per year in fiscal year 1990-91 to more than $12 million budgeted for 2002-2003.
County officials blamed the rising cost of Medicaid for the 10-cent property tax increase in fiscal year 2001-2002 and, according to county Finance Director Kellie Blue, Medicaid continues to be a burden.
"That's what's been biting us in the butt, and you can quote me on that," she said.
According to the census, 27,326 individuals in the county were living in poverty in 2000. Of those, 2,907 -- or 11 percent -- are 65 or older. That's down from 1990, when 3,448 -- 14 percent -- people 65 and older lived in poverty.