LUMBERTON — Robeson County’s poverty rate has been steadily increasing for about 15 years, with a third of the population now struggling to make ends meet.
What that means for residents is detailed in the N.C. Justice Center’s Budget and Tax Center’s Economic Snapshots. Released March 29, the annual report compiles data on employment, poverty, income inequality, housing, health and education in every county in the state.
Thirty-three percent of Robeson County residents — 43,106 people — are considered to be living in poverty, compared with 17.2 percent of the statewide population, according to the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, which were released in December and are cited in the Justice Center report. The percentage of children living in poverty, 46, is even higher.
The Census Bureau determines who is living in poverty by comparing a household’s income before taxes, excluding non-cash benefits like Medicaid and food stamps, with a “poverty threshold” based on the number of people in the household and their ages.
According to the report, 51.7 percent of Latino residents in Robeson live in poverty, compared with 36.2 percent of blacks, 33 percent of American Indians, 21. 3 percent of Asian Americans and 20.4 percent of whites.
“Where you lives matters for your ability to get ahead and this county-level data shows that inequality of opportunity persists across the state,” said Tazra Mitchell, a policy analyst at the Budget and Tax Center. “There is a need to target policies towards communities continuing to struggle and ensure that the benefits of growth are broadly shared.”
The 2000 census showed 22.8 percent of Robeson residents living in poverty overall. In 2010, that number was 30.2 percent.
The increase has cemented Robeson as one of 353 “persistently poor” counties in the country under USDA guidelines. According to the USDA, persistent poverty occurs when 20 percent or more of a county’s population is living in poverty for three censuses. This is more common in rural areas because resources are spread out and isolated.
“Living in a persistently poor area can have an effect on everyone. We see higher rates of all kinds of social problems. Higher rates of inequality are connected with higher crimes rates,” said Brooke Kelly, an associate professor of Sociology at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
According to Kelly, Robeson’s current economic state is years in the making. Before the 2008 economic spiral known as the “Great Recession,” Robeson experienced its own economic shortfall. In 2003, nine manufacturing plants closed down, leaving workers who often had no more than a high school diploma out of work in an job market that increasingly demands a college degree.
But the effect wasn’t limited to immediate job loss. Laid-off workers have less money to inject into the economy, additional support jobs are lost, businesses lose revenue, and more strain is put on social services.
“When you have job loss there’s a ripple effect,” Kelly said. “People aren’t going to be accountable to each other in various ways. Institutions we rely on don’t necessarily have the resources to help.”
Another major consequence of poverty is food insecurity, or a lack of access to sufficient food, according to Kelly. According to Feeding America, 30,200 Robeson residents are food insecure and may be faced with choosing between cheaper food options and healthy ones.
According to the Justice Center report, Robeson’s unemployment rate in December was 7.5 percent, with 3,948 people looking for jobs and 1,827 job openings.
The median hourly wage in Robeson County in 2015 was $11.84, about 75 percent of the median hourly wage for the state. According to the Justice Center report, a family of three in Robeson County must earn $20.39 per hour “to make ends meet.”
The cost of rent and utilities in Robeson, however, is low compared with the state. A “safe, modest two-bedroom unit” will set residents back $632 month, meaning a person who earns the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would have to work 67 hours each week to afford that home.
Robeson County experiences a similar gender wage gap to the nation as a whole. According to the report, 13.6 percent of Robeson women have bachelor’s degrees, while 11.2 percent of men hold that degree. At that same educational level, men earn about $8,115 more each year.
“If you have a lot of female head of households and women are making less money than men, that’s going to have an impact for a lot of children as well,” Kelly said.
According to the report, the richest 5 percent of Robeson County’s 45,446 households earn an average income that is 31 times greater than the bottom 20 percent of all county households.
“… Interestingly people are more likely to try to organize or try to address their circumstances when they are in a situation where they see a disparity is visible, as opposed to where they feel like they’re all in the same boat,” Kelly said.
Kelly said what often gets lost in some of the “bleak” statistics reported about Robeson County are what people are doing to improve them. She gave as an example a former student studying summer feeding programs with the aim of helping more public school children get access to the free meals when the school year is over. She also pointed out efforts by her colleagues at UNCP to boost literacy in public schools and do community service.
“There’s a wonderful history here and a lot of depth and richness in addition to some of the startling numbers you see,” she said.
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.