The hidden epidemic: Part one of a series
Officially, Dare County is one of the richest in North Carolina. Our tourism-based economy last year raked in $1.2 billion from visitors, behind only mega-wealthy Mecklenburg and Wake counties. Our real estate is valued in the billions and we sent about $90 million combined in state and local tax receipts to Raleigh in 2014.
Compared with North Carolina’s other 99 counties, Dare has one of the lowest poverty levels in the state (11.1 percent), which is well under the North Carolina average of 17.8 percent, according to 2013 data. In 2015, the poverty line is $11,770 for a single person and $24,250 for a family of four.
But Dare County, and its residents, are by no means immune to economic distress. In 2013, the last year for which data are available, about 20 percent of Dare’s children lived in poverty. Of our year-round population of roughly 35,000 people, about 3,000 of them fell below the poverty rate. According to March 2015 numbers, 8,365 people requested public assistance for needs that included housing, food, child care, transportation and utility costs.
And the percentage of poor people in Dare County has grown steadily. In 1989, the rate of children under 18 in poverty was 8.3 percent, less than half of what it is today. According to NC Child, during the 2007-2008 recession, 26 percent of Dare’s school children qualified for the free or reduced lunch program. In June 2015, nearly half — 43 percent — of Dare’s students qualified, with the highest percentages in Manteo and Hatteras Island schools.
Many people — often called the “working poor” — skirt official poverty with a patchwork of jobs, making too much money to qualify for help, but barely enough to pay their bills. Others may be eligible for public assistance, but choose not to seek any because of the hassle, the intrusiveness or pride. So they scrape by, living paycheck to paycheck, selling their possessions on Craigslist when something unexpected comes up.
Poverty in Dare County floats around the edges of most residents’ lives, not quite seen, rarely acknowledged. Poor people might be those who hitchhike on Colington Road and shop for groceries at the dollar stores. Maybe they’re the folks you see at the garage sale who are missing teeth and riding a rusted bicycle. They’re the ones who can’t get a ride to court to pay the ticket for an expired driver’s license, and they’re the ones who go to jail because they can’t afford bail.
“The poverty down here — a lot of it is institutional,” said Jenniffer Albanese, executive director of Interfaith Community Outreach, a nonprofit aid organization supported by churches, government and numerous other local partners. “It just seems like they’re in a rut where they just don’t know how to get out it.”
Within the last two years, the state has not made it any easier for those with stretched budgets. The governor has declined to allow Medicaid to be extended to 500,000 low income residents who don’t qualify for coverage under Obamacare, leaving them without health insurance. In 2014, North Carolina eliminated the state Earned Income Tax Credit, resulting in higher taxes for low-and-moderate income people. In addition, lawmakers this year have voted to put taxes on numerous previously untaxed services such as auto repair and plumbing.
Those costs are on top of cuts in state unemployment insurance benefits, which were implemented in 2013 and hit the Outer Banks’ seasonal workforce hard. Caps on new claims for weekly state unemployment insurance checks were slashed from $535 to $350, and the maximum number of weeks were cut from 26 to 14. Yet, available jobs here in the off-season remain few and far between.
Even though 15 percent of the people in Dare County have a hard time putting food on the table, Dare’s overall income level is too high to qualify for grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help the food banks, said Kathy McCullough-Testa, the executive director of the Beach Food Pantry.
“It’s kind of sad,” she said. “It’s one of those things where we have this area with big rental houses. Then, of course, you have the flip side, the entire tourism economy. It’s hard to explain.”
Then there is the income it takes to live in a resort community. In 2015, Dare’s cost of living exceeded the national average by 8.6 percent. That index, which measures regional cost differences in consumer goods and services, found that Dare County’s housing costs were 6.7 percent higher than the national average, its health care costs were 6.3 percent higher, utility costs were 19.4 percent higher and grocery costs were 3.7 percent higher.
For all its wealth and big beachfront houses, Dare County is populated largely by people who work in low-to-moderate paying jobs that serve a booming tourism industry that veers between insanely busy to doorknob dead. According to AccessNC, the average weekly wage in Dare County in 2014 for people who work in the food and accommodation services is $432. The average weekly wage for the workforce as a whole is $556.
The biggest chunk of employment in Dare County — 29.3 percent—is in management and business, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009-2013 community survey. Also, 20 percent of the workforce is employed in service industries; 16.8 percent in arts, entertainment, accommodations and food; 27.3 percent in sales and office; 10.1 percent in construction.
And housing costs don’t leave much left over for other needs. Median monthly rent in the county is about $998, and the median price for a house is $299,000. That is almost twice as much as the median house value ($153,600) statewide.
There are other costs incurred by living in the Outer Banks. There is zero mass transportation. It takes about two hours to drive to the closest airport in Virginia Beach. Costs for a shuttle ride to the airport can be as much as $100. Numerous medical services, new automobiles, and stylish furniture and clothing are routinely obtained in Virginia.
And winter is not as gentle as some might think. It gets cold, sometimes below freezing. Storms are frequent and nasty. Many locals who work non-stop during the tourism season take off to the tropics for a vacation. But the off-season is harshest on those who don’t have much money, or who face unanticipated challenges that quickly tap their funds.
The long, skinny geography of the Outer Banks can make a sense of community difficult. Many of the newcomers who relocated here with visions of long bicycle rides and welcoming locals may be shocked to find themselves alone in February among a neighborhood of vacant rental homes, dealing with ugly nor’easters and closed roads. Although much improved in recent years, social support systems and government safety nets can be scattered, underfunded or overwhelmed.
On either end of the 100-plus miles of the Outer Banks — Corolla on the north, Ocracoke on the south — the villages become virtual ghost towns in the depths of winter. With about 950 year-round residents, Ocracoke, a huge money generator for very poor Hyde County, has a tight community, but it still can close in on those who may have had a hard time adjusting to insular island life.
“We do have transient people here, who put their feet in the sand and think this is a wonderful place to be,” Albanese said.
One example she cited was the case of a woman with three children who moved here from Kentucky. Within no time, the woman found herself so desperate for help that the Interfaith organization took on the task of providing the diapers for her children.
Coming next week: The “working poor” who struggle in Dare County.