Poverty and the Environment in NC: an Overview
Poverty & the Environment in North Carolina: an Overview.
By Grady McCallie, Policy Analyst, NC Conservation Network, April 21, 2006.
Poverty in North Carolina
According to the federal census, about 15 percent of North Carolinians, or roughly 1.2 million people, live in poverty. However, conditions are worse than federal and state statistics imply. That’s because the federal poverty level, the marker around which much data is organized, was never intended to be used as it is currently applied. Developed in the 1960s, the poverty level was conceived as a marker of inadequate access to food – a family over the poverty level might still be in trouble, but a family under it was without question suffering. Over time, the level has been used inappropriately as a floor, with the assumption that if people can stay above it, they’ll be fine.
For North Carolina, the NC Justice Center has developed a much sounder measure – the living income – that includes not just food but a basket of essentials, including housing, medical care, and transportation. In two reports in 2001 and 2003, the Justice Center has estimated that the true 2003 living income in North Carolina was $39,674 for an urban family of four, in contrast to the federal poverty level of $18,400 for the same family. Because most of the available data refer to the federal level, we use that throughout this overview – but we think the Justice Center’s analysis makes a lot more sense as a basis for public policy. (This year the Justice Center and other advocates are working to pass a minimum wage increase – to $6.00 per hour – through the NC Senate. The bill made it through the NC House last year, and the Justice Center has published materials explaining how enacting the bill will help address poverty across the state.)
For a visual overview of poverty in North Carolina, it’s worth viewing maps at the North Carolina census website. The maps offer several different ways of thinking about poverty in North Carolina. One map showing the percentage of adults or children in poverty highlights a number of eastern counties with relatively small populations and weak economies. This is the map used by the NC Rural Center, as it emphasizes rural poverty. But in absolute terms, a significant number of low-income North Carolinians live in the state’s largest cities. They don’t show up on the county maps because they are hidden within the Piedmont’s overall affluence. The state census map showing rooms inhabited by more than two people comes closer to picking up the distribution of these folks as well. The map showing houses heated entirely by wood throws a spotlight on the most rural of the mountain counties. Finally, a map showing homes with incomplete plumbing – a condition with direct environmental consequences – highlights a smaller set of counties in the northern coastal plain.
Poverty is not race-neutral. Using 2003 data, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation has estimated that 13 percent of whites, 32 percent of blacks and 38 percent of Hispanics in North Carolina are poor. For some groups of residents that are most vulnerable to environmental harms – like very young children – the relationship between race and poverty is even stronger. A random state survey of 1,800 newborns from 1997 through 2000 tracked the percentage of new mothers with family incomes less than $14,000 in the previous year: for Latinas, 63.1 percent; African-Americans, 45 percent; and for whites, 18.5 percent. For that reason, while it is a mistake to equate race and economic status, we think it is vital to pay attention to the differential impact of environmental problems on residents of different races or ethnicity as well as different classes.
Children in North Carolina are disproportionately poor. The Justice Center estimates that 37 percent of children in the state live in families that earn below the living income. As many as 20 percent of children live in households that fall below the federal poverty line. An article published in 2005 found that children who grow up in poverty have poorer health, in part from greater exposure to pollution; and that the longer a child stays in poverty, the worse the impacts to their health.
Poverty trends in North Carolina are discouraging. The NC Justice Center estimates that fully one-third of North Carolina’s working families earn less than a living income – a higher rate of low-income working families than any other South Atlantic state except South Carolina. Moreover, the percentage of low-income North Carolinians has increased, with the state’s median income falling 6.8 percent, or roughly $2,800, since 2000.
Environment and poverty in North Carolina
Poverty intensifies environmental harms; and the political powerlessness of poor communities attracts new environmental problems. For the last decade, national studies have repeatedly documented that pollution sources are disproportionately located in low-income communities. For North Carolina, it is easy to think of land uses – landfills, hog farms, prisons – that have poured into poor, rural communities. With the exception of hog farms, it is hard to find recent strong academic documentation of these injustices. On the other hand, the national Scorecard website, affiliated with Environmental Defense, allows anyone to enter a zip code and obtain an assessment of local pollution emissions (based on the federal Toxics Release Inventory, which the Bush Administration is trying to weaken), and a comparison of the emissions data against local socio-economic data. Overall, Scorecard estimates that low-income families bear greater than average risks from hazardous air pollutant emissions in 60 North Carolina counties; releases of toxic chemicals (to water, air, and land) in 36 counties; and emissions of smog and particulates in 56 counties.
For air pollution at least, inequitable exposures cut along racial as well as class lines. Two reports by the national environmental organization Clear the Air, found that 71% of both African Americans and Latinos live in counties that violate air quality standards, compared to 58% of whites. North Carolina’s population includes roughly 2.6 million people of color. Clear the Air estimates the number of people of color living within 30 miles of each of North Carolina’s 14 coal fired power plants - that total comes to over 3 million, indicating that some residents are close to several plants. While coal-fired power plants are not the only sources of air pollution, they are among the largest sources in North Carolina, not just of such well known pollutants as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, but also of air toxics.
One poster issue for the links between poverty, environmental exposure, and health is asthma. Between 10 and 20 percent of children in North Carolina are diagnosed with asthma, along with roughly 7 percent of the adult population. Multiple theories have been offered to explain what causes asthma, but most boil down to a combination of poor quality housing, bad indoor air quality, and bad neighborhood air quality – all of which are correlated with poverty. And it’s a vicious circle: asthma can impose a crippling financial burden on families seeking to escape poverty. A 2003 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that per-person annual costs of mild, moderate, and severe asthma were respectively $2,646, $4,530, and $12,813, for medical care, drugs, and lost wages. The economic impact of pollution-triggered health problems isn’t limited to asthma; the Grist series includes a moving article describing the financial burden experienced by people who suffer from multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). Those have been studied much less than asthma, but given that one of the main triggers for MCS is exposure to toxics, it is reasonable to expect that low-income communities with lots of nearby pollution sources will also have larger percentages of chemically sensitive residents.
Poverty can also intensify environmental exposures in unexpected ways. For example, the US Department of Agriculture estimates that in 2003, 13.7% of North Carolinians lacked money to buy food for at least part of a month. Families that cannot buy food rely on other sources, including subsistence hunting and fishing. But in North Carolina, many of the most reliable species of fish are contaminated with unsafe levels of mercury, which can damage the nervous systems of developing fetuses (exposed through their mothers’ diets) and young children. In fact, the NC Department of Health and Human Services recently expanded mercury advisories for some freshwater species to cover the entire state.
Beyond pollution and health impacts, low-income residents and communities often have less access to environmental goods, such as open space and outdoor recreational opportunities.
In rural communities, perhaps the worst environmental injustices are borne by farmworkers. While legislation passed in the 2005 state legislative session to raise the minimum standards for farmworker housing, conditions are still wretched at many worker camps. Farmworkers are routinely exposed to dangerous pesticides without adequate safety equipment or training; a recent horrifying series of articles in the Raleigh News & Observer provides a rare example of a company getting caught for violating worker safety rules, and it remains unclear what penalty the company will face.
Not surprisingly, poorer families are also less likely to have health insurance. The federal census estimates that 24.2 percent of families with a household income of less than $25,000 lack medical insurance – in contrast, say, to 8.2 percent of families with household incomes over $75,000. Coverage is also distributed unevenly by race. In 2005, just 11.7% of white North Carolinians lacked any medical coverage (private or government programs); in contrast, 17% of black residents lacked coverage, and 51.6% of Latino residents lacked coverage. People who lack medical coverage are more likely to wait until a health problem is severe before seeking treatment, increasing the chances that damage will be irreversible. Children living in poverty receive less care (and less adequate care) than children from higher-income families; there is also evidence nationally that children of color receive less care from the public health system, even when income differences are taken into account.
Finally, wealthier families can make daily consumption choices (bottled water? Brita filters? higher-quality meat?) that guard against environmental threats. Several pieces in the Grist series tackle this issue from different directions. Tom Philpott’s "I'm Hatin It" discusses the way federal agricultural and food policy has subsidized unhealthy, low-nutrition foods. I’ve found little information specific to North Carolina to improve upon his clear account of the links between corn subsidies, high-fructose corn-syrup, cheap junk food, and increasing levels of obesity – which afflicts Americans of all income levels, but lower incomes disproportionately. A more controversial article by anthropologist Elizabeth Chin considers the differences between ‘living simply’ as a chic lifestyle choice and struggling to get by in poverty. Again, there’s little to say on this specific to North Carolina, but her analysis may strike a chord in readers who have appreciated Whole Food’s or Earthshare’s organics but winced at the niche marketing and yuppie prices.
This overview barely scratches the surface of ways that environmental threats place low-income residents of North Carolina at risk. Fortunately, several upcoming events offer advocates the opportunity to take action in support of environmental justice. On May 16, local residents are hosting a large rally in East Arcadia, Columbus County, against a municipal solid waste landfill proposed to be sited in a predominantly African-American community. On May 24, advocates from across the state will gather at the NC General Assembly in Raleigh for Clean Water Lobby Day to urge legislators to support drinking water well protections and mercury reductions from coal-fired power plants. The state Environmental Management Commission is taking public comment on its weak proposed state mercury rule on May 25 (Charlotte), June 1 (Raleigh), and June 8 (Winterville). Finally, for advocates concerned about the interaction of environmental issues and poverty, we recommend that you bookmark the website for the NC Environmental Justice Network, the coordinating force for groups to work together to promote environmental justice in North Carolina.
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