It’s no secret in Winston-Salem that our city is affected by poverty, but most residents don’t understand how severe the problem actually is. A 2015 Harvard study found that Forsyth County is the worst standard county in the United States in which to be born impoverished.
The Harvard team studied almost every county in the United States, and delivered a report on the best and worst counties for children to grow up in. Their report analyzed the percentage effect (positive or negative) that every year a child spent in a given county had on their average adult income. 2,875 counties (representing all but a small percentage of US counties) were included in the study, and the results are startling for Winston-Salem. According to the data, children born to impoverished parents in Forsyth County (whose income falls within the 25th percentile of the national mean)—in the Winston-Salem commuting zone—lose 1.1% average adult income for every year they remain in Forsyth. No other county in the United States had this negative of an impact on impoverished children (outside of a few Indian reservations). This means that children born into poverty in Forsyth have the worst rates of upward mobility of any non-Indian reservation county in the United States (Out of the 2,875 assessed). Taking into account the noted exceptions, children born and raised impoverished in Forsyth have the most difficult time escaping their poverty as compared to any other county in America.1
Just over 20% of Forsyth County residents live in poverty. This poverty rate is significantly higher than most other urban areas of comparable size, and represents over 70,000 people living at or below the poverty line in Forsyth.2 What does it mean for someone in our community to live in poverty? The official poverty line in the United States in 2017 is $12,060 per year for an individual, and $24,600 per year for a family of four.3 It is difficult for most people to imagine trying to make ends meet on this budget, much less sustain any quality of life. Thousands of our neighbors live in these conditions every day.
This blight of poverty in Forsyth county is anything but evenly distributed amongst its inhabitants. While 9.6% of the white population is impoverished in Forsyth, 29.5% of the African American population lives in poverty, and 42.8% of Hispanics find themselves below the poverty line. In sum, African Americans in Forsyth County are 200% more likely to live in poverty than the white population, while Hispanics are over 300% more likely to find themselves impoverished as compared to their white neighbors.4
Poverty by Race/Ethnicity
There is no easy, single answer as to the perpetuating cause of this inequality between ethnic groups, but the understood consensus is that it is a legacy of the profound racial discrimination of the recent past. We still live in a time in which many of our senior citizens remember the Jim Crow South, listened to first hand accounts of slavery from their grandparents and great grandparents, and daily witnessed minorities hatefully barred from full participation in society. We have far from recovered from these wounds in Winston-Salem. One of the most consequential legacies of racial discrimination in Winston-Salem is the comparative lack of skills in the minority workforce. Ethnic groups that were historically denied full access to institutions of learning and prevented from working the best jobs are naturally going to find themselves at a disadvantage in the modern economy. Speaking of this injustice, Harvard scholar William Julius Wilson writes:
Note the sharp decline in the relative demand for low skilled labor has had a more adverse effect on blacks than on whites in the United States because a substantially larger proportion of African Americans are unskilled. Indeed, the disproportionate percentage of unskilled African Americans is one of the legacies of historic racial subjugation. Black mobility in the economy was severely impeded by job discrimination, as well as by failing segregated public schools, where per capita expenditures to educate African American children were far below amounts provided for white public schools… Although the number of skilled blacks (including managers, professionals, and technicians) has increased sharply in the last several years, the proportion of those who are unskilled remains large. This is because the black population, burdened by cumulative experiences of racial restrictions, was overwhelmingly unskilled just several decades ago. As urban economies have transformed from goods production to more of a digitized, information-focused, “virtual” workplace, black central-city residents with little or no education beyond high school see their access to employment increasingly restricted to low paying jobs in the service sector.5
While Wilson is discussing African Americans in this excerpt, the same principles could largely be applied to the Hispanic community as well. Though this skills disparity is national in scope, it manifests itself with unique severity in Winston-Salem due to the overwhelming collapse of the city’s low skill labor market just a few years ago (See “The Past” on this website). This high concentration of a disenfranchised, low-skill workforce in Winston-Salem has been a major contributing factor in the city’s struggle with poverty.
In the intervening years since its economic meltdown, Winston-Salem’s economy has mounted a tremendous rebound in a pivot towards technology and modern innovation. Much of the area filled with Reynolds’ old factories is now known as the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, the fastest growing urban research park in the United States. The Innovation Quarter is home to over 120 companies, leading the way in areas such as biotech, information technology, digital media, medical research, and higher education.6 While this is a brilliant achievement for Winston-Salem (which has adopted the slogan "City of Arts and Innovation"), it has not proved beneficial to all of the city’s residents. Somewhat counter intuitively, poverty in Winston-Salem has steadily trended upward over the last decade while these new industries have flourished.7 What’s going on?
The low skill, economically disadvantaged people of Winston-Salem are not the ones filling these new jobs. Winston-Salem has grown in recent years, with many people relocating to take advantage of the exciting job opportunities here in town. Many of these new jobs are being filled by highly skilled, well educated professionals who as a rule are not coming out of Winston’s economically depressed neighborhoods. The disenfranchised, low-skill work force is still here, and statistically has little chance of participating in the economy of innovation. This is what William Julius Wilson, quoted above, refers to as a job-spatial mismatch.8 Thousands of low skill workers are crowded in and around downtown Winston-Salem, where they don’t realistically have a chance at working anything more than a low paying service job. Many of the people who live closest to Winston-Salem’s vibrant centers of innovation are in reality farthest away. These communities have been in poverty for decades, they are still in poverty, and they will remain in poverty if we do join together in a full stop, relentless effort to end this cycle of injustice.
1 Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren. “Data from Chetty and Hendren (2015): Causal Effects, Mobility Estimates and Covariates by County, CZ and Birth Cohort.” Equality of Opportunity, Harvard University. 2015, http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/index.php/data.
2 Elizabeth Lees, “Forsyth County Demographics, 2014,” Forsyth Futures, last modified December 2015, accessed September 8, 2017. https://www.forsythfutures.org/stories/s/xgbf-fwxh/.
3 “U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines Used to Determine Financial Eligibility for Certain Federal Programs,” Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation: Health and Human Services, last modified January 31, 2017. Accessed September 7, 2017. https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines.
4 Elizabeth Lees.
5 William Julius Wilson. More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner-City. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009) 9-10.
6 “About,” Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, accessed November 9th, 2017. https://www.innovationquarter.com/about/vision/
7 Elizabeth Lees.
8 Wilson, 10.