WINDSOR – Poverty is North Carolina’s greatest challenge. In one of the most economically vibrant states of the richest nation on earth, poverty is as common as it is ignored. And too many are being left out for too many reasons.
One district it hopes is on the road to alleviating some of that came on Monday with the unveiling of the Bertie County Poverty Commission in Windsor.
Delayed with its kickoff since the first of the year, the five-member panel held its launch in the County Commissioner’s room, attended by elected officials, government dignitaries, community activists, and current and former educators.
“We want to raise the awareness of the critical county role in breaking the cycle of poverty,” said Poverty Commission chair and chairman of the Bertie County Board of Commissioners Ernestine Bazemore. “We hope to provide the tools to increase capacity and advocate for policies that expand opportunities for all as we build a healthy, safe, and vibrant county. We want to help our residents overcome adversity and thrive.”
In North Carolina, 18 percent, 1.7 million statewide, live in poverty, giving the Tar Heel state the 12th highest poverty rate in the country – though only a decade ago NC was 26th.
Alarmingly, a quarter of Tar Heel children live in poverty; 40 percent are children of color. Over a half-million North Carolina households participated in the food stamp program since 2014. Of 10 eastern North Carolina counties that demonstrate “persistent poverty”, Bertie is one of them; meaning at least 20 percent of its residents lived in poverty every day for the past 30 years.
Joining Bazemore on the Commission are Curt Kedley, Catholic layman with the Glenmary Home Missions of Holy Spirit Church in Windsor; Cindy Perry, Director, Bertie County Department of Social Services; Nick Shook, retired Bertie County Schools educator; Ron Roberson, Windsor businessman and realtor; and Bonnie Powell, School Resource Officer with the Bertie County Sheriff’s Office.
Following introductions, there was a special video message from North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper in which he stated how a mission that aids in the elimination of poverty is vital to the state’s future.
“Those who are our most vulnerable in our underserved communities shouldn’t be left out or left behind,” Cooper said. “We can’t move our state forward unless we do so together – and that means all of us.”
Cooper said the observations, concerns and recommendations he hoped the Commission would collect could help make for healthier North Carolinians.
Former County Commissioner Patricia Ferguson, who helped spearhead the formation of the Commission as its Launch Coordinator, said progress requires both a bit of new-age thinking, blended with the traditional.
“The question is how do we, in an out-of-the-box way, take what we know and fuse it with new ideas and ways of moving people out of poverty,” Ferguson stated.
“We hope to see a difference by next year,” echoed Bazemore. “For today, we’re just organizing, but we hope to ultimately help those in great need, whether it’s help with utility bills, with nutrition, workforce development, a number of aspects we have here in Bertie County we think can move people out of poverty.”
Bazemore said they want to begin by targeting the county’s young people through programs like “Better Beginnings for Bertie’s Children”, an arm of the Albemarle Alliance for Children and Families.
“In just the past four years we’ve moved our poverty rating from the poorest county in the state up to number-four,” she acknowledged. “I just hope this Commission helps us to move up just a bit faster.”
“Poverty as we know it has existed too long in Bertie County,” said Ferguson. “To the men and women in the county who have labored tirelessly fighting against poverty and for a better way of life we want you to know that help has arrived.”
A vital part, Ferguson emphasizes, is ripping away the myriad of stereotypical ideas about people in poverty.
“We will be challenged to rethink the construct that poor people are lazy when many of them work every day in low-wage jobs with few opportunities for mobility,” Ferguson noted. “It’s our perspective of them and our expectation of them that makes the difference. We must come to the table without our biases.”
“People who we classify as poor more than often have more going for them than we give them credit for,” said Shook. “There are a lot of people who’ll work if given the chance; and those who don’t want to work, well, we have to help them understand what work really is.”
Roberson, who’s served in multiple capacities on boards and commissions around the county, said he was glad to be giving back.
“I’ve lived my life serving other people,” he said. “It’s always a pleasure to serve those less fortunate than I because I’ve been where they are and I hope I can help them become where I am.”
Several of the invited guests gave their support to what they hope will be a successful venture.
“We have children who come to our schools every day who are hungry and haven’t had their basic needs met, and we expect them to learn,” said County Schools Superintendent Dr. Catherine Edmonds. “And we have to address those basic needs first before we can really address the learning.”
District-3 State Senator Erica Smith stressed there are many stakeholders in Bertie County who could benefit, and they all have to work together.
“With this partnership and the leadership we have assembled here, anything we can do to lend our support, we most certainly will,” Smith said.
Patrick Woodie, president of the Rural Economic Development Center of North Carolina, said he had toured some 80 counties across the state and the caring has to begin on the local level and not in Washington, DC or Raleigh.
“No one has a better sense of what would be good for Bertie County more than the people who are in this room” Woodie said. “We want to support the work of this Commission and the local government as well.”
“We must nurture our planted seeds,” said Bertie Board of Education chair Bobby Occena. “We must build a bridge, but let’s not stop there.”