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Asheville City’s poverty postulations

By Leslee Kulba –

Asheville City Council held a joint meeting with the Asheville City Schools Board of Education Tuesday at Hall-Fletcher Elementary. Mayor Terry Bellamy and Councilman Cecil Bothwell opted out at the last minute to attend the almost unannounced visit of Vice President Joe Biden. Formal presentations gauged achievement with quantifiers whose definitions, Esther Manheimer determined, were not understood by most in the room. As might be expected from such a meeting, the themes of broad achievement gaps and unacceptable dropout rates were once again recycled.

“What can we do?” asked Marc Hunt.

Chair Gene Bell, who doubles as the executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, broke the ice. Assistant Superintendent Kelvin Cyrus had just explained that income level, and not skin pigmentation is responsible for the achievement gap. Referring to author Eugene Robinson, Bell said African-Americans now fall into four economic classes. In Asheville, however, poverty is almost synonymous with being African-American.

Bell used the word “disenfranchised” to describe the disengagement and apathy prevalent in public housing. Two-thirds of heads of households do not work. Some families have been living in Lee Walker Heights for five generations. There are no role models. There is no reason to work when people are allowed to hang out with all creature comforts provided, but once somebody starts working, they have to start paying rent.

Vice Chair Al Whitesides said the schools get $60 million a year to deal with the achievement gap. They have enough money. What they lack is strategic applications. Whitesides recalled growing up in a predominantly black school when Asheville practiced segregation. He and others were inspired to achieve things people told them they couldn’t. Graduates of Stephens-Lee went so much further with so much less. Whitesides just returned from his 50th class reunion, where, aboard a cruise ship, he mingled with a doctor and a Congressional hopeful.

Addressing the missing ingredient, he said, “We had moms. We had dads, who pushed us and gave us support.” He didn’t have money, but he didn’t know he was poor until he went to college. He went to college because his dad made it his number-one financial priority, and what his dad couldn’t pay, the church and his dad’s employers pitched in to cover. Whitesides’ mother worked in public housing for 35 years. Now 86 years old, she says of the projects, “It’s a mistake what we’re creating.”

After Gordon Smith mentioned some programs council’s Housing and Community Development Committee was evaluating, Whites responded, “We don’t need to depend on the federal government to do everything.” He rattled off the names of some local foundations. He suggested that some local employers step up and take some risks to help turn the despondent people into productive citizens. He then accused members of council for being “typical politicians, thinking about votes and not thinking about doing the right thing.”

“Tell us what the right thing is,” requested Jan Davis. The calmness in his tone stung like an arrow, reflecting the despondency of somebody who has for decades grappled with poverty from a public policy perspective and seen no substantial signs of abatement.

Whitesides shot back that council could start by rolling up their sleeves instead of talking about problems. “It’s like eating a pie,” he explained. One didn’t wolf the whole thing down in a second, but addressed accessible bite-size chunks.

Bell said there were 10,000 jobs within five miles of public housing. Unfortunately, buses don’t accommodate people with weekend or overnight schedules. He asked council to contemplate walking from Klondyke to MAHEC. Cab fare, he said, would eat any wages one would earn. In addition, single parents have to hire daycare. Bell recalled when the Grove Park Inn hired a lot of Jamaicans and shuttled them to work. He thought more employers should try to hire at least one or two people from public housing and help with transportation.

Jacquelyn Hallum indicated she was a firm believer in programs. Unfortunately, anytime something starts to work, whichever party is in power decides to defund it. Another problem these days was finding children to enroll in them. Hallum wasn’t advocating for all programs. She supported those like the City of Asheville’s Youth Leadership Academy that train leaders to stay in the community and give a hand up to others in what she described as a “continuum” or “pipeline.”

Davis said one difficulty was funding. The city only had about $1 million in federal CDBG funds to help low-income neighborhoods. He sympathized with Whitesides, having grown up in Asheville in the same era. So as not to offend, he only made a reference to the “family situation,” and recalled how he and his friends knew “dad would kick your b**t if you didn’t do good.” In short supply today were high expectations for kids, child rearing skills, and work ethics.

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