The Facts We Don’t Figure, A Conversation About Poverty

Highland’s Circle Discussion Recap: The Facts We Don’t Figure, A Conversation About Poverty

On Wednesday, May 8th, members from United Way’s leadership group Highlands Circle met at Lenoir-Rhyne University in a round-table discussion with several local leaders from Asheville Housing Authority, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, and the City of Asheville to discuss common myths around poverty. Bruce Waller, Community School Coordinator at Asheville Middle moderated the discussion, sharing statistics around local living wage while opening the floor to the speakers and authorities within these fields to help unpack local history, examples from within our schools and communities, as well as personal stories. This conversation was a ground-level discussion in understanding the relationship of race to poverty and the inequity that has existed historically in education, income, and health--the three main areas that our organization works to address through funding, programming, volunteerism, resource referral and support, as well as collaborative community work. 
Below you’ll find a brief recap from the morning’s conversation, which doesn’t include every word spoken, yet provides the meat and potatoes of the discussion so you can share in what was unpacked in our time together. At the bottom of the page, you’ll also find additional resources, including those that were mentioned from speakers and attendees that morning.


Meet the Speakers…
Moderator: Bruce Waller, Community School Coordinator, United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County
Philip Cooper, AB Tech Community College and Coordinator of UpSkill Western North Carolina
Nia Davis, Human Relations Analyst for the City of Asheville
Karolina Hopkins, Asheville Housing Authority
Yashika Smith, Inclusive Engagement and Leadership Manager for the City of Asheville 

Breaking Down a Living Wage in Asheville, North Carolina

Bruce begins with a scenario: You have applied and received a new job after completing training with a local nonprofit. You’re making a living wage of $13.65 an hour, with no employer-provided benefits. You’re a parent of two kids and are making $28,392. Your rent is $1,200 a month. You have no child support and no social security income and your childcare is covered by vouchers. Because you make a living wage, you’re only eligible for limited SNAP Benefits. This is considered a living wage in Asheville, North Carolina. 
Bruce asks the audience how much income someone needs to make per hour to be completely self-sufficient. The answer: $32/hour to be self-sufficient in this scenario.
“We’re talking about what she needs to be self-sufficient to survive, not thrive. There’s a difference,” adds Kris Dionne, head of Leadership Giving group Highlands Circle.
Karolina Hopkins of Asheville Housing Authority expounds the point further. “Once you’re making a living wage, your food stamps most likely will go, so you have to factor in the cost of food. Your childcare vouchers will go away. And again, these are numbers to survive. We’re not talking about taking vacations or fixing something when it breaks.” 

Understanding The Benefits Cliff

“So as you can see this person needs to make $67,392/year in order to survive, just to keep afloat, not thrive as we’ve said,” shares Waller. Before we move on, I want to touch on the phrase The Benefits Cliff. This term is used to describe when public benefits taper off or abruptly stop because you’re making a living wage. 
“Before I worked for the City of Asheville, I worked for a Microsoft company, so fortunately and unfortunately I have lived through the Benefits Cliff,” shares Yashika Smith, Inclusive Engagement and Leadership Manager for the City of Asheville. Back in 2013, I met a family through Big Brothers and Big Sisters that became my son’s mentor. Fast forward a couple of years and they came to me and said they’d like to offer me a job at their Microsoft company making $30,000/year. Shortly after he asked me if I would like to move out of public housing. His family would like to help me do that. 
So I moved into an apartment out in South Asheville. I’m making a living wage now as the term goes. I turned in my recertification for public assistance after I got the job and moved and realized I was making more money than I could in order to receive the benefits, so that was April 15, 2015. On May 1, my food stamps were cut completely. My Medicaid was taken from me. The kids were able to keep it. I had a waiver to keep childcare vouchers, yet it increased about $300/month and I was lucky to be able to go to my boss at the time, my son’s Godfather and say, ‘I don’t think I can keep this job because I can’t afford food and daycare.” 
“So as you can see, with government assistance, when you’re in it, it’s hard to get out of it. There’s no scaling. It’s an abrupt stop. This is what the Benefits Cliff is,” shares Waller. “So, there’s a myth out there or a way of thinking, ‘Well just get a job’ or ‘They always want a hand out, not a hand up’ yet the structure isn’t in place to do that.”

Poverty Myth 1: People want a hand out and not a hand up. All people need to do is pull themselves up by their boot-straps. 

“You can’t pull your bootstraps up if you don’t have boots,” shares Philip Cooper of AB Tech Community College. “What I see a lot is people celebrating a wage like $13.65, but a lot of times they don’t have custody of their kids. They might be a father who just got out of prison. Even when they get a job at $13.65 and look at how much it costs to live in a halfway house here in Asheville. It blows people’s minds, but it can cost anywhere from $650/month to $800/month to live in a halfway house.”
Smith adds, “I think what we often forget is that the bootstraps are given to us. That is usually something that is passed along to us. It translates to our foundation. People living in poverty don’t have the foundation, so when we’re talking about income, we have to think about it as a resource, not the foundation. Most people don’t have boots or bootstraps to pull themselves up by, because the people that have the boots were given them.”

 The Fish and Lake Analogy...

Nia Davis, Human Relations Analyst for the City of Asheville, helps clarify using a fish and lake analogy. “The most frustrating thing to me about this idea of the bootstraps, is that the term ignores institutional and systemic issues. So when we’re talking about poverty, that’s a systemic issue. So in the office of equity and inclusion, we use this analogy given to us by the Racial Equity Institute--a fish and lake analogy. Basically, you’re walking along and you see a dead fish. The first thing you’re going to ask is ‘What’s wrong with the fish? What happened to the fish?’ If you’re walking along and you see a bunch of dead fish outside of this lake, then your question is going to be ‘What’s wrong with the lake?’ So often when we’re talking about situations like poverty, we’re individualizing it and looking at the fish, like ‘What did this person do to be in poverty?’ which allows us to ignore the issues of the lake.”
She continues, “So, let’s talk about the lack of generational wealth. Let’s talk about discriminatory housing policies. Let’s talk about history period, point blank. The prison industrial complex. Food desserts. So many things we need to talk about. We have to address the issues in the lake before we’re blaming the fish for the situation that we’re in. We have to racialize poverty. When we aggregate a lot of this data by race, it’s black folks who are at the bottom.” 

Poverty Myth 2: In the United States, if you’re not officially poor, you’re doing okay. 

“When I got out of prison, I started working and I was making $8.50/hour,” shares Cooper. “In my next job I got a raise making $9.50/hour, then finished my two-year degree at AB Tech and my pay went up, however, child support for me at one time was $573/month. Since I got a job with AB Tech, I was now needing to pay for insurance. My insurance at A.B. Tech is awesome, but whenever you add a child to it, that goes up, so I was paying almost $1,000/month in child support as a person with a violent offense.”
He continues, “I say all of this just to say that, from the outside looking in, you might think, hey this guy works for the community college and he’s doing okay, but really that person is struggling and trying not to break the law. It makes it hard for a person to do good and easy for a person to do bad. I’m just blessed I have a faith community and recovery community who have my back, but there are so many who don’t have that, which is why they re-offend.”
Davis shares, “I think about the working poor who are working yet still living in poverty. About a third of Americans make less than $12/hour. I think we often think about that being teenagers taking minimum wage jobs, but no, it’s one-third of Americans. We just had a discussion about $32/hour for a family of three being what’s needed to survive in Asheville, not to thrive. 

Poverty Myth #3: All U.S. Children have Equal Opportunity to Succeed in School. 

“We know that we have the number one achievement gap in the state among black and white students,” shares Shaunda Sanford of Asheville Housing Authority and Asheville City Schools Board member. We’re also number one as it pertains to disproportionate discipline between black and white kids.” 
“There has always been an achievement gap in Asheville City Schools. 2009-2010 was when that gap began to drastically increase and the state continues to pull resources,” she shares. “We have broken this information down to see the economic disadvantages. White children still supersede black children living in poverty, so it is a race issue. We’re pushing forward and are not going to stop because all children do deserve an education and a good education. We shouldn’t have kids graduating and being unable to read or enroll in a community college or start a career.”
Davis adds, “Not only are we looking at folks in poverty and children in poverty, the majority of which are black and brown kids but let’s also address the school to prison pipeline. Let’s look at disproportionate punishment for students of color. Something I found in doing my research that was really alarming was a study that came up in 2009, which showed that poor white students outperform black and brown students at any income level. We have to address race and how uncomfortable we are talking about race and the disenfranchisement that comes with that for our black and brown students.” 
Karolina Hopkins of Asheville Housing Authority points out the graphic on the screen (shared to the left). “The graphic on the screen of the child wearing a backpack filled with hunger, abuse, homelessness and all of these other issues is very well illustrated. So many children coming from poverty can only deal with those problems, and can’t even begin to think about something like homework. They can’t even enjoy being a kid, because they don’t know where they’re going to sleep or when they’re going to eat their next meal.”

**We would like to thank Highland Circle sponsors--Lenoir Rhyne University and Northwestern Mutual. Their support allows our organization to host events like this. 

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