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Gaps between rich and poor widening

By Dave Ress, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

June 22--The gaps between the Peninsula's poorest and richest neighborhoods are wide, and getting wider.

They are gaps in income -- and in the share of income available to save for the future, in access to jobs, health care and even groceries, a Daily Press review of Census and other data shows.

They are gaps, too, in hope.

"This is a rough place," said Orlando Covington, who grew up at 33rd and Chestnut and now ekes out his food stamps at the weekly soup kitchen at the Newport News Farmers Market, as well as with meals that some of the Southeast Community's churches offer. He can't walk too far without a cane -- but doesn't like to use the cane in case some of the kids who hang around Jefferson think he's an easy target to roll.

A badly-healed broken leg, after a bone infection the uninsured Covington left untreated for months three years back means he has a tough time talking his way into work on construction sites, the way he used to. He gets his groceries at the high-priced small neighborhood stores that dot the neighborhood -- the ones that accept food stamps, anyway.

"I'm not good with that technical stuff," he said. "They weren't doing that when I was in school," back at Warwick High School in the early 1980s.

These days, he's staying at his adopted brother's place, just up the street from the Farmers Market.

He'd like something more secure -- for himself, and for the generations to come.

"My step-granddaughter's got two kids now. Little ones, two years old, two months old ... the future doesn't look too bright for them," he said. "I hope I'm wrong."

National issue, local effect

The growing gap between the rich and poor in the United States was a political issue in the 2012 presidential election -- the 99 percent of Americans missing out on Wall Street bonanzas and boardroom goodies -- while President Barack Obama complained in his State of the Union address this year that "after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. Average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled."

The conservative magazine The Economist warns that pattern is politically dangerous, a sign of economic inefficiency and a brake on economic growth.

If it's hard for the poor and middle class to get ahead in the country as a whole, it may be worse here. On the Peninsula, average wages, adjusted for inflation have increased less than 3 percent since the depths of the recession, although per capita personal income, buoyed by faster gains in the money people get from their businesses and investments, rose 10 percent, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data show.

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The Peninsula area as a whole isn't the easiest place for poor people to get ahead. Its two lowest-income localities, Newport News and Isle of Wight, rank among the lowest one-eighth among American cities and counties when you ask whether kids end up better off than their parents, a massive Harvard and University of California database on economic mobility shows.

Prosperous Poquoson, on the other hand, does far better than average setting its kids on a path to do better financially than their parents.

According to the Harvard-California database, about 40 percent of the children of parents in the middle of the income pack on the Peninsula will end up down the ladder from where their parents were. About that percentage of children of parents at the bottom will stay at the bottom. More than a third of children of the highest earners will be among the highest earners of their generation.

Two years back, Tawanda Newkirk's brother, a soldier at Fort Eustis, suggested she and her two kids could stretch her wages as an information technology worker further down here than back in Maryland, but after moving to one of the lower-income corners of Newport News'Denbigh section, it hasn't worked out that way.

She works at a call center in Williamsburg, nursing her aging car on the long commute to her $10-an-hour, no-benefits job, and crossing her fingers that it won't really need the $1,500 transmission job she fears is coming. She lives in Newport News because the city's Housing Broker team, which aims to keep families from going homeless, stepped in to lend a hand with a security deposit.

Though she had 90 credit hours of computer information technology classes under her belt when she came to the Peninsula, she couldn't find work. She used a grant and a student loan to get accreditation as a medical coding clerk, "but everyone wants someone with experience." Her credit's not in good shape, which also discourages employers, and she hasn't a clue how she's going to manage to pay off $40,000 in student loans. There's no money for her 16-year-old to go to college.

"Savings?" she said. "I'm pretty much day-to-day. Sometimes, I have to borrow money just to put gas in the car. ... I don't see much of a future here for me or for my girls."

She worries a lot about them. There's no money for extras, no money for a sitter to keep an eye on them when she works in the evening. "I call them on every break," she said, but she still worries about their safety.

Struggling middle class

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It's easier for kids when they start further up the income ladder, says Hampton University sociologist Antoinette Livingston.

She remembers a Hampton program aimed at girls like Newkirk's -- the idea was to spend some time on campus, talking about careers, as well as get tips on fashion and makeup and the rest of what goes into projecting the kind of professional image that makes businesses want to employ a young person starting out.

But the girls whose moms drove them over and dropped them off at the university came already dressed well. The kids she was hoping to reach simply couldn't get there.

Even so, it's not just the region's poorest who miss out, she said.

"Growing income inequality, it locks out the middle class, too," she said.

"Now the middle class is a struggling middle class ... they're playing catch-up," Livingston said.

And often, it feels a long way from catching up. Katherine Trame, a 12-year civilian employee of the Hampton Police Division, recently left her job after years of seeing no change in her take-home pay -- a 6 percent increase in 2012 all went to cover increases in the share employees pay for health insurance and pension. She had to move to Richmond to find better pay and a more affordable cost of living.

"My rent was going up like 5 percent every year and my salary was of course staying the same," she said. "So I was just moving backward financially. If I hadn't gotten another job, I would have reached the point in just a few years where I couldn't afford my apartment."

The gaps between rich and poor here are dwarfed by the gaps in New York City or Washington, D.C., where some of the nation's highest-income families congregate. Yet the Harvard-California database shows kids in both those cities have a better chance of getting ahead than almost anywhere on the Peninsula.

"A lot of income inequality seems linked to stagnant mobility, but there are a lot of variations from place to place," said College of William and Mary economist Peter McHenry. "We need the mechanisms. ... Maybe it's school funding, maybe something else."

Alex Olssen, a research assistant on the Harvard-California project, said analyses of the database show communities with big gaps between rich and poor also are places where children of the poor have a hard time moving up the income ladder.

But the statistics don't say which causes which.

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The statistics also show that family structure and education matter even more, he said. So does the vibrancy of civic life -- the degree to which people vote, join community groups and feel safe on the streets. When those look strong, kids do better. The degree to which people of different races live apart is also more important, with a strong statistical link between segregation and less success for kids.

How closely family structure, education and civic life track income inequality is an open question, Olssen said.

Looking at the Peninsula's poorest and highest income census tracts does gives some clues, though.

The poorest neighborhoods

The Peninsula's three poorest neighborhoods are all in southeast Newport News -- a roughly L-shaped area bounded by 39th Street, Marshall Avenue and 24th Street, between the water and the Hampton city line.

The three richest are in York County -- two of them just north of Big Bethel Reservoir, the third on the York River, just east of the Coast Guard Training Center and extending east to Dandy.

The numbers paint a stark picture: In the Newport News neighborhoods, unemployment runs at twice the regional average. In the three York County neighborhoods, the rate is well under half. There are more adults in the Newport News communities who, because of age, disability or simple discouragement, have stopped looking for work.

Poverty rates in the Newport News neighborhoods have climbed in the past dozen years -- nearly tripling in the area south of 24th Street and east of Marshall Avenue, and rising 267 percent for the census tract just to the west, which stretches along Jefferson Avenue from 39th Street to the water.

"It's like a place unto itself," said Cleve Mabry, a Vietnam War veteran who came back to Newport News when he managed to shake his addictions and resolved to help others along the way. Mabry ran unsuccessfully for City Council this year, calling for a focused effort to bring jobs to the Southeast Community.

"I grew up here, and when I was growing up, there were all kinds businesses here -- banks, restaurants, movie theaters, department stores. There were jobs, and places you could get what you needed. ... There were all kinds of people here -- blue collar, professionals, shipyard workers, teachers."

When he came back to Newport News a decade ago, he found a community that seemed abandoned.

"I grew up in the projects, in Harbor Homes. It's torn down now. A lot of the guys I grew up with, went to school with, they've moved out," he said. "I think it was, they saw everything deteriorating. It was like pulling them backwards and they didn't want that."

More than a third of people in the southeast Newport News neighborhoods have income below the poverty line -- $15,730 for a single parent with one child. More than a fifth of the households in those neighborhoods make due with less than $10,000 a year.

Median income in the Newport News neighborhoods is down -- by more than 25 percent in the area south of 24th Street.

In the richest York County community, the Running Man area, median household income rose 15 percent, after adjusting for inflation. Median income there is nearly five times the level in the Newport News areas.

The Hampton census tract where the median income is just about the metropolitan area average -- the neighborhoods between North King Street and Fox Hill Road, north of Mercury and south of the Willow Oaks shopping mall -- saw gains like those in York County.

But those numbers obscure another trend -- the percentage of households in the Hampton neighborhood with incomes below the metro area average is up -- 44 percent earned $50,000 or less in 2012, compared with 38 percent who earned below $35,000 in 2000, the rough equivalent after adjusting for inflation.

Cost of housing

Signs of financial stress in the Hampton neighborhood also include the high numbers who spend more than 35 percent of their income on housing. At 42 percent, that total is even higher than in southeast Newport News, where more than a third of households are in that situation.

That means it's hard to find the money for extras, like books for the kids or fees for an after-school program. In the York County neighborhoods, fewer than one in 10 households spend that much of their income on housing, despite their costlier homes.

It is tougher to save money, whether for college for the kids or a car to get to work.

More than a third of households in the three poorest neighborhoods have no car. In contrast, more than a third in the highest income communities have three cars -- helpful for a teenager to get to school or an after-school program or a job.

The number of car-less households is up slightly in the Newport News areas, as is the percentage of three-car houses in the York County census tracts.

In southeast Newport News, roughly one in four have to rely on the bus, a carpool or their own two feet to get to their jobs.

"I do carpentry and painting," said Robbie Williams, taking a break from dishing out stew at the Newport News Farmers Market soup kitchen just down the street from the room he's been renting on Jefferson Avenue.

"I work all over Newport News and Hampton, and I could work more if I could get to Virginia Beach and Norfolk," he added. "See that blue bike there? That's my car."

In the York county neighborhoods, almost all of the one in 10 who don't drive themselves either carpool or work at home. More than one in four working adults in the Newport News communities have no health insurance, while fewer than one in 10 of those in York County have no coverage.

Looking for work? It's about six miles from the heart of the highest-income neighborhood to a Virginia Employment Commission office, but closer to 12 from southeast Newport News.

For people in southeast Newport News, it would be tough to find a place to deposit any extra money anyway -- there are no bank branches in the scores of blocks south and east of Interstate 664 and only two in the third low-income census tract, which includes the business district around City Hall and the courthouse.

Even getting to a check-cashing and payday loan company is a 25 block hike from the heart of southeast Newport News.

A half dozen banks line the roads that bound the highest income neighborhoods, along with hundreds of stores and offices for shopping or work. The middle income Hampton neighborhood is also close to the bustling commercial strip on Mercury.

In southeast Newport News, there's one supermarket and a handful of small neighborhood food stores, barber shops and other small businesses.

Except for the seafood packers down by the small boat harbor and the professional and government offices downtown, there are no major employers in the neighborhoods, though Newport News Shipbuilding is nearby. The York County neighborhoods include or abut four shopping centers and three business parks, offering a wide choice of places to shop or seek work.

"If you go to the Walmart on Cunningham and go to the Walmart in Yorktown, you'll find they sell different items. If you want to question that, the answer just becomes, well, that's your option," Hampton University's Livingston said.

Both the poorest and the highest income Peninsula neighborhoods are more segregated than the metro average -- 97 percent of people living south of 24th street and 96.5 percent along Jefferson south of 39th street are African-American, compared to between 9 and 12 percent in the York County neighborhoods. About 31 percent of Hampton Roads' population is African-American.

Census data also show people in southeast Newport News are much less deeply rooted in their homes. More than 17 percent of those along Jefferson and 16 percent of those south of 24th moved within the city during past year -- that's more than the total who moved from anywhere into the York County neighborhoods.

Though voting precincts don't match census tracts exactly, roughly speaking, voter turnout in the southeast Newport News neighborhoods, at 30 percent, was well below the 50 percent turnout in the York County neighborhoods in the last statewide elections. The Harvard-California database tracks voting as an indicator of what its researchers call social capital.

The percentage of single moms in southeast Newport News is more than double the rate in the York County neighborhoods.

"By choosing where you live, you choose everything," Hampton University's Livingston said. "A neighborhood of $400,000 homes isn't accessible to many working people."

Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.


(c)2014 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

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