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City confronts rising poverty

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Posted: Sunday, October 12, 2008 4:28 am | Updated: 6:00 pm, Thu Jan 24, 2013.

First in a three-part series

Before moving to Westhaven, a public housing site in Charlottesville, Thomas and Fannie Richards never stayed in one apartment very long.

The most money the two ever made collectively was in 2000 — about $1,100 per month — and of that they paid $650 a month to rent a Fifth Street apartment. But frequent health issues, including pregnancy complications and leg injuries, and bad credit set off a vicious cycle of job losses and evictions as the couple tried to provide for their children — two biological, and two they adopted in 2004 after a family member was unable to care for them.

Eight years after their first apartment, the Richardses are living on $323 per month — child support provided by Social Services for their adopted children — and food stamps.

Their existence is similar to that of a growing number of residents in Charlottesville, a city acclaimed for its quality of life but one where poverty and income disparities have increased even as the city pours millions into anti-poverty initiatives.

The number of students in Charlottesville who receive free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty, has remained around 50 percent of the division’s total enrollment for the past five years.

The most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates for Charlottesville, from 2005, show that 9,101 residents were living in poverty — 23.7 percent of the total population and a 6.5 percent increase from 2004. The 2005 figures also show that 24 percent of city children under age 18 were in poverty, and 25.6 percent of 5- to 17-year-olds were in families in poverty.

In 2005, the federal poverty threshold was $19,971 for a family of four. In 2007, the most recent figures calculated, the threshold was at $21,000.

Because their rent in Westhaven is subsidized, the Richardses pay $37 in rent per month, although they say it’s been as high as $140. Occasionally Thomas does landscaping work that garners some extra money, but neither parent provides much supplemental income — Thomas is out of work because of additional leg surgeries and Fannie is taking classes to get work.

Thomas, who is 40 and applied for disability in 2005 but was turned down, puts his family’s situation bluntly:

“If you don’t have the money, it’s hard to live in Charlottesville.”

The Charlottesville League of Therapists, an association of mental health professionals, has helped the Richardses by providing mentoring to their two adopted children. But before that, the couple said, they sought help from several nonprofits in the area, but to no avail because of complicated income requirements.

“The more I try, the harder it gets, it seems,” said Fannie, who previously lived in Westhaven with her mother for 16 years.

Increased funding

Officials acknowledge that there’s no sure-fire way to eradicate the city’s income disparities, but activists say a series of measures is essential to even take a stab at the problem — including more jobs, affordable housing and education for residents. Nonprofits have made efforts to help those most in need, and the city has taken steps as well, including holding the Charlottesville Community Job Fair and giving funding to the Central Virginia Small Business Development Center.

Though it is impossible to tabulate exact figures for how much the city has spent on poverty-related efforts, statistics indicate that Charlottesville has provided millions in the current budget for groups that address poverty, workforce development, tax and rent relief and social services initiatives. This includes $3 million for groups that provide services to children, youth and families, $179,441 in local funds for Social Services’ direct assistance and $63,242 for Charlottesville’s Summer Internship Program for low-income youth, up from $30,000 the previous year.

Funding for agencies has gone up: Between fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2009, city funds for the Monticello Area Community Action Agency went from $180,635 to $228,286, reaching a high of $274,403 in the fiscal 2008 budget. Other agencies that directly or indirectly address poverty — including the Region Ten Community Services Board; Children, Youth and Family Services; United Way Childcare; and the Music Resource Center — also saw increased city funding.

Whether the money is making a dent in Charlottesville’s poverty levels has yet to be seen, city officials say.

“I think it’s hard to quantify or qualify how the money has positively affected poverty,” said city spokesman Ric Barrick.

Barrick said he does not think the money has been wasted, though it is difficult to judge how efficiently the money has been used. Federal programs that have received less funding in recent years have also forced city officials to pick up the slack, he said.

Former Councilor Rob Schilling, who was a rare Republican voice on a body traditionally dominated by Democrats, said throwing money at poverty initiatives without evaluating whether the programs are working has not improved the city’s situation and has fostered dependence. Instead, he said, the people in poverty should be encouraged to achieve self-reliance, and city officials must prioritize where the needs truly are.

“The opportunities are there for people, but are they being encouraged to use them?” Schilling asked. “There’s a continued emphasis of dependence on local government.”

Barrick said that to get a better assessment of the city’s situation, “it’s important to bring in the people who are living in poverty.”

In its effort to solve Charlottesville’s problem, the City Council is planning a work session Nov. 6 seeking to find ways to better connect the city’s resources, expand outreach and pinpoint the proper role of local government in fighting poverty.

Opening the conversation on poverty will help city officials determine what can be done, Barrick said.

“How can we recognize opportunities to change the way we normally operate?” Barrick asked.

But talking about poverty can do only so much, said Karen Waters, executive director of Charlottesville’s Quality Community Council. The council is a resident-driven group dedicated to improving the quality of life in Charlottesville’s poorest neighborhoods.

“I think people are talking about it,” Waters said. “Whether they’re actually doing really sustainable, culturally competent programming to really address the root causes is a different matter.”

In the current economy, she added, things are getting worse — with low-income residents facing the biggest challenges posed by rising fuel and food costs and a tightening job market.

Councilor Julian Taliaferro said expanding the city’s workforce to include better-paying jobs is essential.

“We need jobs where people have upward mobility,” Taliaferro said.

Within the city limits from 1995 to 2007, the numbers of private-sector jobs in several industries have experienced steady declines — including manufacturing; education and health services; and trade, transportation and utilities, according to the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce’s 2008 Jobs Report. In the same time period, the city lost 473 public-sector jobs.

“It’s important for taxpayers to know, and for everyone in Charlottesville to know, that what happens to the least of us happens to the greatest of us,” Waters said.

Out of sight

Past planning strategies implemented in Charlottesville were designed to keep the city’s low-income neighborhoods as places apart from the larger community. This intentional segregation led to less income diversity along the city’s entrance corridors, and activists say this forced clustering of the poor has exacerbated Charlottesville’s poverty problem.

Marijean Jaggers, founder of a podcast project called Voices of Poverty that launched in May 2007, said she was surprised by how many lifelong city residents did not know just how high the poverty rate was when she moved to Charlottesville in 2005. The podcast project, Jaggers said, attempts to expose poverty by posting interviews with low-income residents online, at voicesofpoverty.org.

Charlottesville 2007 demographic estimates provided by the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development showed that 3,650 households — just less than 21 percent — had a household income between $0 and $15,000. The median household income was $37,154.

“It seems like we really have a hidden poverty problem,” Jaggers said.

Jaggers came from St. Louis, where she said mixed-income neighborhoods are common.

When she came to Charlottesville, she said, “I sort of expected the same thing.”

Karen Shepard, MACAA’s executive director, agreed.

“I think there’s a lot of philanthropy but a lot of people don’t realize the pockets of poverty here,” she said. According to the organization’s Web site, MACAA provided services to 865 individuals and families in Charlottesville during fiscal 2007.

Qian Cai, director of demographics and workforce research for the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, said Charlottesville’s population has remained steady — around 40,000 — though poverty levels have gone up since 2002. But as with any city that has a large university, it is likely that UVa students are included in the U.S. Census estimates and that they could skew the numbers.

“They could be a contaminating factor,” Cai said, mainly because students do not have sizeable incomes. The only students who are guaranteed to not be a part of Census estimates are those living in dormitories or group facilities, such as fraternity and sorority houses. Those living in city rental units may be, she said.

But data from the Virginia Department of Education indicate that nearly 54 percent of children enrolled in city schools received free or reduced-price lunch during the 2007-08 school year. Though numbers for this year are not yet final, as of last week roughly 50 percent of Charlottesville students were eligible.

Waters said many with college degrees do not remain in Charlottesville because of the relatively small job market, which creates even more income disparity.

“There isn’t a workforce that sustains them,” she said.

Chamber President Timothy Hulbert said the way to increase income and opportunity is through more jobs, education and training — not just by pressuring employers to raise salaries. And the more regulatory hoops Charlottesville makes businesses jump through to set up shop in the city, the more it will deter them from doing so, he said.

The problem, Hulbert said, “doesn’t get fixed overnight.”

On top of increasing the city’s employment opportunities, activists say there must be ample opportunities for job and financial management training, improved transportation access and mentoring programs.

“If you don’t invest and mentor these families and provide a path out of poverty, how are they going to get out?” Shepard said. “These are things that are doable.”

A problem for cities

Poverty levels remain higher in Charlottesville than in nearby counties, mirroring national trends.

“Poverty will always be an issue for the city, because if you’re poor you want to live centrally,” Councilor David Brown said.

Figures from 2007 on poverty levels in the Charlottesville Metropolitan Statistical Area — which includes the city and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson — show a lower level of poverty than in the city, with the area’s levels at 13.3 percent. In 2007, poverty in Virginia increased to 9.9 percent even as national figures declined; and the Char-lottesville area’s cost of living was roughly 14 percent higher than the national average.

To expose the problem, Jaggers said, residents need to realize how poverty affects each resident regardless of income level. Though Voices of Poverty was an attempt to shed light on the issue, Jaggers said it was by no means completely successful in making Charlottesville residents aware of the problem.

“You can absolutely live in this community and choose to be unaware that there are people living in poverty here until it becomes personal, until it affects you in some way,” she said. “Just as there is a core group of people who are passionate about improving the community, there are those who think it’s great.”

Waters said the whole community must encourage those in poverty to become civically engaged.

“Primarily, it’s [a lack of] time [and] it’s not knowing how to make your voice heard,” Waters said. “We’re also used to only listening to certain things.”

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