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Poverty: our problem



During the State of the City address Monday night, a video highlighting the accomplishments of 2013 showed Durham Mayor Bill Bell resuscitating a mannequin during a CPR class.

If the mannequin represents downtown Durham and parts of the South Side, then for sure, Bell, city leaders, private companies and nonprofits have revived those areas.

But, as Bell noted in his annual address, while "we are making progress where we're intentionally working, now it is the time to take the same steps to address those among us who have the least."

Now the mannequin symbolizes reducing the persistent poverty in Durham.

"It's time to stop hoping that the solution ... will occur by some wealth, which will 'trickle down' or that 'rising tide raises all boats,'" Bell said. "It's not happening."

And it's unlikely to happen, given the Republicans' economic and social policies that cut unemployment benefits and social services funding, as well as blocking the working poor from qualifying for Medicaid.

With a poverty rate of 21 percent, Durham has more poor people than it did a decade ago, when the rate was 15 percent. In some census tracts in East Durham, a third to half of all residents, most of them people of color, are poor. In the neighborhood near Grant Park and Durham Tech, 80 percent of children live in poverty.

The city's plan is to build "intentional relationships," modeled on a national service campaign: pairing low-income families with volunteers who will help them with job training, interview skills, housing and access to financial planning. Neighborhood-by-neighborhood, year-by-year.

Beyond that vital one-on-one attention, though, we as a city have an obligation to first acknowledge that poverty exists. "Some people live it every day," Bell said. "And others are not aware of it."

Each of us must take some small but important action to alleviate it: Donate to a food bank. Volunteer at an after-school program or with the Durham Literacy Council.

The achievements, Bell said, "will not be analogous to the revitalization of a neighborhood or downtown Durham where we can see the physical transformations take place ...."

Compare Bell's address with the news Monday morning from Research Triangle Park. The RTP Foundation, which manages the park, announced that it has purchased 400 acres in two parcels—I-40 near N.C. 54, and Cornwallis Road and Davis Drive—as part of its makeover of the 50-year-old suburban tech and bioscience hub.

With retail, restaurants, housing and offices, RTP hopes to attract new businesses and skilled young workers.

Yet before we envision workplaces where life's great answers lurk at the end of a pipette or 20-somethings sit in front of monitors encrusted in computer code, let's consider how RTP can also help lift people out of poverty.

Education is key, but considering the tight job market and the debt that college incurs, a degree is not a ticket out of the projects. We need concrete, day-to-day ways for low-skilled or semi-skilled workers not just to survive, but thrive.

Bob Geolas, RTP Foundation president, said new housing would accommodate a "variety of incomes." It is essential that apartments and condos cater both to the high-tech workers pulling down $75,000 a year and the people who earn much less: Those who clean the offices at Cisco and sit in the security booth at IBM.

Geolas also underscored the necessity of light rail to help alleviate the financial strain of gas prices on RTP commuters. And everyone is a commuter to RTP because nearly all of it is sequestered in southern Durham County.

So if paying $3.40 for a gallon of gas pinches a project engineer at Bayer CropScience, imagine how it pings the landscaping crew that grooms the entrance to GlaxoSmithKline. (If you ride the bus to the park, count on at least one transfer and a 45-minute commute.)

By providing these amenities, RTP hopes to reinvent itself. But as Bell said, it will require more than physical improvement to make Durham and RTP a more vibrant and equitable place to live.

"Research Triangle Park is half the size of Manhattan" Geolas said. "And you can't get a cup of coffee or a sandwich."

And in some Durham neighborhoods, you can't afford one.

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