Poverty, Trauma, and the American South.

An Introduction

NC, 1941

“For most Americans, it would appear that the question is not if they will encounter poverty, but rather, when, which entails a fundamental shift in the perception and meaning of poverty.” — Mark Rank, Confronting Poverty

In preparation for writing this series, I went digging for narratives and statistics that could stand in for my family’s history of impoverishment. I wanted to hear my story but not tell it. I wanted a replacement with the prickly bits removed. I’ve often found my experiences and memories of poverty hot to the touch, giving way to silence, which I hope explains the nature of my relationship with the damn thing. Silence only gives silence, however.

Per Talk Poverty, a project of the Center for American Progress, North Carolina ranks 40th in the nation in overall poverty, meaning a “percentage of people who had incomes below the poverty line ($25,926 for a family of four).” As of 2019, the same reporting year as Talk Poverty’s, nearly 14 percent of North Carolinians lived in poverty. For Sampson County, the small farming county where my family has lived for generations, nearly 17 percent of its 63,000 residents live in poverty. I made up a portion of that statistic once. So did my cousins, my mother, my grandparents, great-grandparents and their sharecropper ancestors before them.

Before I go any further, I want to make a distinction. While nearly 14 percent of North Carolinians live in poverty, minorities contribute heavily to that number. Nearly 22 percent of Black and Native American residents of N.C. live in poverty, more than double the amount of White Carolinians. White men in Carolina make up to 37 cent more per dollar than Black women and nearly 50 cent more than Latina women. In 2020, Covid-19 contributed to a recession in the labor market, which disproportionately affected women of color who often work in service jobs. Job losses and school closes directly exacerbated this issue and further contributed to the rise in child poverty. It was never equal and it’s not now.

U.S. Census Bureau

Truthfully, I cared little what stories I would be drawing on to supplement my analysis of poverty and its effects, whether those anecdotes were mine or someone else’s. I just wanted some assurance things can still be okay for my family who is living through it. Poverty, as I’ve learned, is much more than food insecurity or missing bills. Poverty is a branching tree.

In the first of this three part series, I’ll be doing a deep dive on childhood poverty’s long-lasting effects, both physical mental. Below is an introduction to the topic:

Here’s the thing about growing up without money or resources: if you’re lucky, you don’t realize it. I was raised by a single mother working multiple jobs, who took her children with her to class while she finished her undergraduate degree, who never made it feel strange the three of us slept in a wrought iron bed, who stayed up late helping us with schoolwork, warmed by a clicking kerosene heater. In these ways, my sister and I were lucky, but not all children are. The Child Poverty Action Group has found, “Children who have lived in persistent poverty during their first seven years have cognitive development scores on average 20 percent below those of children who have never experienced poverty.” Moreover, “…poor children are four times more likely to develop mental health problems by the age of 11.” These are tangible, long-lasting effects that don’t dissipate just because finances have stabilized. What’s most alarming, however, is that school performance and mental health issues, while serious, are just the tip of the iceberg.

Follow up blogs will focus on poverty’s relationship to trauma and crime.

For more information, visit the UN’s overview of poverty alleviation and eradication here.

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