Can we take a minute from gorging ourselves and shopping until we drop to think about poverty in paradise?
I was asked to speak at the second annual Social Justice Forum earlier this month at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Lowcountry in Bluffton. “Poverty in the Lowcountry” was the theme, spurred in part by our newspaper’s recent series on the underbelly of the ritzy resort economy — struggling workers. It was called “Propping Up Paradise.”
We can make a huge difference locally. But do we have the courage to do it? I doubt it.
We’ve got the numbers to prove we’re paradise. We’re a community of great wealth.
But that’s not the whole story. Not even half of it.
Fred Leyda, director of human services for Beaufort County, told the story this way:
Eight of the 10 wealthiest people in America own property in Beaufort County but we also have 5,000 homeless individuals, he said.
This is why we’re called islands of wealth in a sea of poverty.
Narendra Sharma, who retired to Hilton Head from the World Bank and established the Neighborhood Outreach Connection, said Beaufort County is a microcosm of the world. Wealth is concentrated among a few.
More than half the school district’s students are minority and more than 40 percent are not achieving at grade level, he said.
“Why isn’t it incumbent upon us to take care of this?” Sharma asked. “Why aren’t we fixing this problem? If you’re talking about what is shameful, this is shameful.”
NOC sets up in low-income apartment complexes. It brings together many organizations, including the public school system, to address poverty one child and parent at a time. He says it is working, but he also sees this:
“In subtle ways, people are systematically moving the low-income out,” he said. Housing costs have soared, and investors are buying low-end property to replace it with something more lucrative, he said.
Sharma said Hilton Head needs a $15 minimum wage, to increase in housing for low-income families of 50 percent by 2020, and to eliminate the income-related school achievement gap by 2020.
“We can make a huge difference locally,” he said. “But do we have the courage to do it? I doubt it.”
Morris Campbell, a native of Hilton Head Island and retired Beaufort County community services director, said it’s easy not to see the problem. Where is the poverty? Everyone has jobs. They have health care. But poverty is here. His top priorities:
Education. Train the work force.
Employment. “Yes, there are a lot of jobs, but it’s the type of jobs available,” he said. “You can work and still be in poverty.”
Cost of living. “That’s very much a challenge,” he said.
Family structure. “Thirty-six percent of our households are single-parent families, most with a female head of household,” he said. “That’s a problem.”
Nannette Pierson, founder and director of the Sandalwood Community Food Pantry on Hilton Head, stresses the need for interaction with the working poor. “Everyone has dignity,” she said. “Come and meet these people, because they are our neighbors.”
She also told the small gathering that they should not beat themselves up because a lot of good is being done.
Danielle Briedung told about some of her work with “community service organizations” — groups of like nonprofits tackling specific problems identified and tracked through the Together for Beaufort County organization. More than 120 agencies are part of it.
Together, they have provided more than $550,000 worth of assistance in this county since the start of the year, she said. Most of it is in-kind work, not cash. But the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program she leads helped 2,200 residents receive almost $2 million in IRS benefits last year that were previously untapped.
Sharma said those who want to help must avoid the top-down, paternalistic approach of handouts with a heavy reliance on the social safety net
“You cannot just rely on supplying basic needs,” he said. “That can lead to dependency.”
We must create opportunities, he said. You do that by listening to the people. He said we need to empower them, see them, feel them and treat them with a sense of dignity.
Campbell said, “The massive approach to end poverty, that’s not going to happen. We need to find the kinds of things we can do as individuals to help people elevate themselves out of poverty.”
First, these foot soldiers said, we must see the unseen neighborhoods and workers.
And then, Leyda said, the most powerful tool to reduce the hidden poverty in paradise is simple:
“We must work together.”