Poor in the ‘burbs: Winston-Salem ranks high in national study

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Winston-Salem is No. 2 on a list that nobody wants to be on.

The Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank, puts metro Winston-Salem in second place on the list of larger metropolitan areas that have experienced the greatest increase in the number of suburban poor people living in neighborhoods where at least 20 percent of the people are poor, the Winston-Salem Journal is reporting.

The Winston-Salem metropolitan area is comprised of Forsyth, Davidson, Davie, Stokes and Yadkin counties.

Excluding Winston-Salem proper from the calculations, the Brookings researchers found that 40.7 percent of the suburban poor in the Winston-Salem area were living in higher-poverty census tracts.

The 2000 Census found that only 6.8 percent of the suburban poor were living in census tracts where at least 20 percent of the people were poor.

Only Colorado Springs, Colo., had a greater increase in the proportion of suburban poor people living in higher-poverty tracts.

“That’s kind of shocking,” said Keith Debbage, a geographer at UNC Greensboro who keeps an eye on demographic trends. “Generally speaking the trend has been for the unemployment rate to decline, but what this tells me is that an awful lot of people have just given up and dropped from the work force. You can’t mask that when you look at the poverty rate.”

Suburban Winston-Salem’s woes put the city in good company, at least.

The list was populated with places like Greenville, S.C., Atlanta, Boise City, Idaho, and Charlotte.

It’s not like the city of Winston-Salem was booming while the suburbs went bust: The Brookings Institution study found that in Winston-Salem proper the number of poor people has increased 73 percent from 2000, and that more poor people in the city were living in high-poverty neighborhoods.

In 2000, the study showed, Winston-Salem had 25,360 poor people, with 57 percent living in neighborhoods where at least 20 percent of the people were in poverty.

About 12 percent were living in neighborhoods where at least 40 percent of the people were poor.

Fast forward to 2008-12: The number of poor people increased to 43,839 in Winston-Salem, and 76 percent of them were living in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of at least 20 percent. The study found 30 percent of the city’s poor living in neighborhoods where 40 percent of the people were in poverty.

Or look at it this way: the number of census tracts in Winston-Salem with at least 20 percent of the residents in poverty increased from 17 to 27 between 2000 and the 2008-12 period.

Officials in the Triad are used to the area being compared – unfavorably – with the Charlotte and Raleigh areas, but Mayor Allen Joines said that the number of poor people grew even faster in those cities than in Winston-Salem.

He’s right.

In Raleigh, the number of poor has increased 110 percent since 2000, and in Charlotte that number has grown by 98 percent in the major cities of that metro area.

Not that Joines sees the numbers in those other cities as reasons for Winston-Salem to be free of worry.

“We have developed a number of initiatives that we are working on, but obviously we can’t cure something like that overnight,” Joines said.

Joines said he is in the process of putting together what he calls a “thought force” that will look at what can be done to tackle the problems of poverty.

“All urban areas are doing badly,” Joines said. “There are a lot of issues there and it is a complex problem.”

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