My Hometown Tackles Poverty

May 7, 2019


Note:  When Winston-Salem’s Mayor Allen Joines announced the formation of a special task force to determine priorities for fighting poverty in our city, entitled Partnership for Prosperity, and appointed John Railey as Executive Director and Chanel Nestor as Director of Community Outreach, I felt that that some of what the late Jerry McLeese and I had done in our own search for greater understanding of the impact of poverty on our community might be helpful.   Winston-Salem is among those American cities that has been hardest hit by globalization and, to its everlasting credit, has not given up on searching for ways to fight the resultant poverty.  There are, by my count, over two hundred private organizations in the city working on the problem.  If you include the churches doing their charitable work, that number jumps significantly.  The Winston-Salem Foundation, one of the oldest in the nation and the first in North Carolina, has sunk more than $500 million since 1919 into funding a host of programs to improve the lives of our citizens.  During the celebration of their 100th anniversary, Scott Wierman, President of the Foundation, introducing another initiative for the Foundation,  said, “We have done a lot for those in need, but we have not done enough with them.   That’s going to change.”  Moreover, that commitment dovetails nicely into the Partnership approach that Railey and Nestor are undertaking through their Listening Sessions.  It is in that spirit, that the results of our modest research effort are offered.   And, oh yes, this is another of those interminable posts that Carole says I tend to favor.

-Warren Dunn


When Jerry McLeese and I set out on our private inquiry into the extent and impact of poverty in Winston-Salem, the very first thing we did was select forty prominent men and women from government, business and industry, the religious community, not-for-profits, health and medicine, education and the arts and sciences sectors to interview. We then interviewed 28 of them before Jerry’s health made it impossible for him to maintain any schedule.


We then decided we would survey them about their opinions on causes of and what activities should be undertaken to ameliorate poverty.   We constructed a weighted average survey, that is each of the activities listed under the five categories – Winston-Salem Public Schools, Poverty/Social Mobility, Hunger, Transportation, and Crime – were to be ranked from one to five in order of priority.  We then selected twenty out of our twenty-eight to survey, dropping eight so no one sector was overrepresented.  Ten were returned.   Almost all of the ten completed the entire survey and most made thoughtful comments.  One even wrote a mini white-paper.


The survey was anonymous, so we don’t know (for sure) who returned them and who didn’t.  It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because this was a highly selective audience and we make no claim that it is representative and there is nothing statistically valid about it.  What it is is an attitudinal intensity survey of a highly selective universe.  We wanted to gain an insight into what ten people who have dealt with poverty and its impact in some way, shape or form felt were the causes of those issues we identified and the most important things to do to fight poverty.  Moreover, we wanted to determine if there was a certain consistency among the ten in how they ranked the activities. It would be fair to consider this type of a survey as a focus group on paper, with all the advantages and limitations of that type of research.  It that regard, it can be considered only as diagnostic.


What follows are the results, as I analyzed them mathematically.  The only reason anyone would have any confidence in my conclusions is that throughout my career I surveyed various audiences about a host of things in order to help determine if the federal programs I was involved in were working.   Because of the tiny size of the present survey universe, an action can be considered as highest priority only if there is a five point differential between the highest ranked and the second ranked.  Otherwise, a second and even a third place in ranking should be considered a priority.


I deeply appreciate the cooperation of those who returned the survey.   No other survey I have ever conducted had as many comments (proportionate to the size of the universe).  Such comments are an important part of determining the attitudinal intensity of the universe, or, to put it in English, how strongly they felt.  It is never pleasant to reveal problems; it is damaging to ignore them.  Winston-Salem has demonstrated that it has the will and the commitment to address its problems and that it is necessary to set priorities.  That’s how this survey may contribute.


Winston-Salem Public Schools


     Seven possible actions were suggested.  The one considered most important was Assuring teacher quality and experience.*   In this category, having Specialized streams such as advanced placement and apprenticeships was only two points below the top ranking.  All other actions ranked at least five or more behind the top two.   Those were, in rank order:


  1. Vocationally-oriented skills (example: computer based-skill sets)
  2. Leadership (school board, central administration, principals)
  3. Pre-Kindergarten programs**
  4. Life Skills curriculum
  5. Learning environment (resources, student behavior, engagement)


*This suggested action, when included in other surveys, almost always receives the most favorable ranking or response.   Although it is predictable, not to include it would be to lose a benchmark.


**There was only a one point separation between 4 and 5 above, so it would be misleading to think that Pre-Kindergarten programs do not have strong support generally.  In most of the Listening Sessions the Partnership for Prosperity is conducting, Pre-K is considered among the highest priorities, even to the point of making it mandatory.  It is well-documented that Pre-K participation is critical to preparing a child for formal learning.



Poverty/Social Mobility


     Some sociologists insist there is a subtle difference between poverty and social mobility.   The former is a condition and the latter is affected by social attitudes.  We lumped them together because Winston-Salem ranks among the worst major metropolitan areas in the ability to overcome poverty, so we included Social discrimination, segregation as one of the contributing factors to poverty.


Ten possible causes/actions to be considered were suggested.  The leading cause of poverty was considered to be Caught in cycle of povertyThis suggests that poverty in Winston-Salem might be considered systemic.  Only three points separated the top ranked cause from Social discrimination, segregation.   Inasmuch as these two causes/actions outranked the third highest choice by six points, it suggests to me that this survey group considers racism must be addressed in a meaningful way before programs to alleviate poverty will be successful.   This conclusion appears to be shared by some who have attended the Listening Sessions.  Both Victor Isler, head of the Department of Social Services for Winston-Salem, and Stan Law, CEO and President of the Northwest “Y,” made statements to that effect at a Listening Session.  Isler said that the community needed to do some heavy lifting on value clarification, including by confronting biases, judgment and “isms” such as racism and classicism (as in) asking question like “How do you view charity?”  Law said that it was time we acknowledged the elephant in the room and began to talk about shared values.


The other causes/action needed, by ranking:


  1. *Inadequate Transportation
  2.  (Tie)  Inadequate skills education

Instability of family situation

  1.  (Tie)  Inadequate coordination of community services

Economic dislocation (job losses)

  1. Personal behavior and life choices
  2. Unrealistic expectations that teachers are surrogate parents
  3. Physical/Mental disability


*One of the more interesting outcomes of the survey and the Listening Sessions to date is that “Transportation” ranks as a matter of significance because it “cuts across all other issues” and yet did not appear among the 56 recommendations made by the Poverty Thought Force several years ago. The relative high ranking among the survey participants suggests that this is now an issue everyone is aware of and feels needs to be addressed.  As a priority for the Partnership for Prosperity, it would appear that “out of the box” solutions should be pursued.  (See Transportation below.)  The potential for minority entrepreneurship or for Not-For-Profits to address transportation needs appears to have considerable support.





     Measuring hunger in America is done through a series of surveys, the most extensive being through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce.  University studies and phone surveys by polling companies round out the methodology.   Hunger itself is subject to a variety of definitions.


While it is likely that however it is measured, one in five children frequently go hungry in Winston-Salem and, according to a Journal article in 2011, that Winston-Salem had at that time the highest rate of hunger in the nation.   City government and private organizations have and continue to fight hunger in a variety of ways, through food pantry services and community gardens to the current Orange Socks campaign that features a number of activities designed to alleviate hunger.  Our survey listed seven causes of hunger without providing suggested solutions because there are so many approaches being pursued and the hunger needle hasn’t moved that much.  So we were interested in what our survey group thought could be root causes around which new approaches could be focused.


The top choice by our group is Absence of living wages for menial jobs.   A living wage was one of the hot buttons at the Listening Sessions, even thought it was not on the list of anti-poverty tools prepared by the Poverty Thought Force.  As one participant put it, “Hunger is caused by not having enough money to buy food.”  Second of the leading causes identified by the survey group as a whole was Living in a food desert.   However, there were two abstentions, which invalidates this response; therefore we consider Growth in income disparity as entitled to be considered the second greatest cause of hunger in Winston-Salem.  The linkage between  #1 and #2 is obvious and the combination should be considered as indicating that the highest priority and the obvious choice of solutions is to emphasize job creation.  Among the highest potential source of jobs in Winston-Salem for those without job skills required by computer-dependent businesses would appear to be in the hospitality sector, indicating an increase in the resources for establishing Winston-Salem as a tourist and entertainment sector would be well advised.


 The remaining causes, in rank order, were:


  1. Instability  of family situation
  2. Inadequate government resources
  3. Inadequate community resources
  4. Inadequate nutritional counseling







     Transportation has emerged as one of the biggest issues in dealing with the effects of poverty.  The motive behind adding this to the survey, when it didn’t even make the original list of 56 issues associated with poverty, was to question the changes in the routing and waiting times as a result of recent decisions by the Transit Authority.  On the other hand, the importance of having a dependable bus service for getting to work on time and doing the other daily chores cannot be ignored.


Our survey offered five reasons why the current system may not be meeting the needs of those in poverty.  The system is funded in part by federal grants and tax dollars, which are not likely to be able to increase in the short term.


The greatest cause of transportation dysfunction has little to do with routing or timing of the bus service, and, according to our survey group, mostly to do with the Expense of maintaining personal vehicles, which then creates a dependency on the bus system.   This finding was closely followed (two point differential) by Absence of entrepreneurs to address need (providing smaller buses, more direct routes to employment clusters, more frequent intervals).  We assumed this means there should be less reliance on the bus system as presently structured and more public/private resources made available to entrepreneurs willing to try “outside the box” solutions, such as Uber-type systems, financing Not-for-Profit bus operations, etc.


     These two findings far outweighed (more than a five point differential) the other findings, which were, by ranking, and which tended to support the top two findings:


  1. (Tie) Inadequate government resources

Inadequate community resources

  1. Absence of community advocates in minority community.







     Crime and poverty may be closely associated, but we were less concerned about what to do about crime (we have a police department for that), but on what is perceived by our group of community leaders to be the root causes of crime.  We offered eight “causes” and the one receiving the most support was Pockets of Poverty, followed by a one-point differential with a tie between Drugs and focus by law enforcement and Racism.


     This perception is reinforced by a myriad of studies as the “root” cause of crime in general, with notable exceptions of white-color crime and crime requiring sophisticated skills, like counterfeiting, so there is nothing surprising in these findings.   What has been advocated is that an effective anti-poverty effort, to be successful, has to be perceived by the community at large as neighbor helping neighbor, not just eliminating poverty in your community because it impacts other aspects of community life.


     The other causes, by ranking:


  1. Unemployment
  2. Instability of family situation
  3. Social or mental disorders
  4. Insufficient enforcement presence in high-crime areas
  5. Not enough community outreach programs






Winston-Salem Public Schools


“Advanced Placement is excellent; vocational (education) and apprenticeships are abysmal.  Teacher pay inhibits teacher quality.”


“Major problem in our community: Lack of positions for the level of education/skills of many of our minority citizens.”


(Biggest problem is):  “Family commitment and getting a good education.”


“My answers are necessarily based on gut feelings from what I have seen and heard.”


(School) “board too often political; need stronger central adminstration.   Teacher salaries tend to push out experienced teachers; many young, good teachers coming in.  Good Pre-K programs; would help if students could stay in same school for kindergarten; good life skills curriculum often taught by wrong teacher.  Strong AP program new, expanding – no coding – varies school to school.”


“Our school leadership has been lacking for decades, resulting in too many schools with inadequate facilities; inadequate curriculum; lack of support for teachers, and an educational system that reinforces social divisions, segregation and a class system.”


“We can’t judge our schools as a whole.  We have re-segregated some of our schools (Carver High is one example) so minority schools are still not receiving the level of support that majority schools do.  AP classes are readily available at majority white schools that prep kids for college (or through Career Center) because most kids are heading for 4-year college.  But schools like Carver have few resources and less ability to focus kids toward living-wage careers because the community emphasis is not there.”


“Career Center; Community College, Family Services Pre-K emphasis.”   (Note: This person chose “Specialized streams (Advancement Placement and apprenticeships as the highest priority.) 


“Funding is a major problem for salaries, facilities, and resources.”




Poverty/Social Mobility


     “Racism is a major factor.”


“The real issue is a lack of a jobs creation and recruitment plan that is solid and carried out by all.”


    “Difficult issue for my white privilege to deal with.”


“Complex, multi-problem issue.”


“Loss of low skilled jobs that paid well as a result of automation and being shipped overseas.”


“Social mobility depends on understanding the “hidden” rules of the class to which you aspire.  How do you get those skills?  Very important.”


“I found this section (of the survey) difficult to answer.”


“Concentrated pockets of poverty are self-perpetuating…They are like quicksand; very difficult to escape.  All of the other topics mentioned in the survey contribute to the challenge (food, local schools, transportation, crime.)  Approaches to education need to change so that we (community, state, and Feds) are willing to fund transformative education to prepare for and point the way to living-wage jobs, or, preferably, careers.  A “college promise” is most important for kids with lower economic and social mobility; remove financial and logistical barriers to community college education and we would have one building block in the machine that breaks the cycle.”


“Skills adjustments must be expanded.”


“You left out of the list Institutional Racism, which I believe is one of the greater factors in the concentration of poverty in W-S, which creates a more intensive cycle of poverty.  People at all ends of the income spectrum have bad families, disabilities, and make personal choices which are not great – but the system our forbearers created: communities, legal systems, and institutional reinforce the great economic and social divide we live with today.”






“Food deserts are as much a product of transportation limitations as they are of the decisions made by food retailers.  We can’t strive to get private enterprise into areas that don’t meet their revenue model, but we can do more to insure that folks have transportation to reasonable food options.  We also need to recognize as a country that food subsidy programs like WIC and SNAP are the most basic forms of support that should be off the table for political gamesmanship, even more than Social Security or Medicare.  The least among us are hungry and we don’t hesitate to cut their food assistance or let it be a pawn in a political struggle.”


“Zoning and concentration of poverty in W-S have left huge segments (of the community) with access to quality food.”


“Many groups and individuals trying hard.” (to provide food support.)


“Inability to plan for the future!  Lack of capital.  Segregated from society.”


“It is embarrassing for our community of plenty to have such large numbers of our citizens with inadequate food.”


“Poor wages and food deserts are most significant.”






“Transportation deficiencies are well documented.  There is a lack of will to fix the problem.”


“W-S built a bus system that focuses primarily on moving poor people to low wage work places.  The system was not designed to serve all populations in our community.  That, and so much of our public infrastructure, is designed to serve people in cars – drive thrus- malls, shopping centers with huge parking lots.”


“This should be so easy to solve in an era when I can summon a ride anywhere, any time, but it remains a huge part of the challenge we face in transforming our community.  We need creativity and community will to change this but it can be done.  It’s maybe the easiest one to really fix if we throw some resources at it.  WSSU has done research that shows that regular bus riders spend 4-5 times as much time commuting as do those of us who own cars.  They also have determined that there is a measurable limitation on upward income mobility when better jobs happen to be off the bus route.   Adding buses is not the answer, although doubling routes would help people use buses in a way that comes closer to meeting the requirement of our car-oriented culture.  Another option is to use ride-sharing services like Uber to provide “first-mile/last-mile” transportation vouchers to those with limited resources. You could ride to the bus stop and from the bus stop to work, doctor, kid’s daycare, etc.”


“Obviously a “free market” opinion.  (Note:  This responder selected Absence of entrepreneurs to address the need as one of his highest priorities to address the issue of transportation.)



Crime Rate


“Mental Health, Housing, Family Dysfunction, (Wealth gap as well.)  (All) related to socio-economic segregation in housing communities.”


“Drugs are a huge issue, but so is the disparate treatment of criminals who are white versus those who are not.  Disparate sentencing leads to disparate rates and terms of incarceration, which, in turn, lead to greater likelihood of recidivism due to our lack of willingness to assist in post-incarceration re-entry.   Availability of mental health care is another legit reason we struggle, since everyone can be quickly labeled a criminal in our society and we know how to treat them (jail), but we still struggle to diagnose someone as needing mental health care and we have virtually NO resources available to treat them when we do.  The bottom line, though, in my opinion is still the cycle of poverty.  Education by itself is not an automatic cure for drugs and/or crime, but it is a place where we know we can do better and, hopefully, prove that we can break the cycle sometimes.”


“Our community has very few resources for supporting positive growth in young people – and, at the same time, fosters the criminality of young African-Americans, particularly boys, but girls as well – and is reinforced by our school system.”



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