Large, white sheets of paper hung on the walls of the First African Baptist Church fellowship hall, each sheet bearing the titles "economic development," "education," "affordable housing," "jobs," "health" or "hunger."
People filled the room to its capacity Wednesday afternoon -- around 130 people at the height of the event -- moving chairs and chatting. They all came to hear the results of a report done by the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund.
The report paints a picture of high poverty in concentrated areas in Goldsboro and Wayne County; a picture of more low-paying jobs and less middle-income opportunities. It shows the reality of the racial divide in opportunity and local economics and illustrates an astronomically high percentage of children living in poverty through data and the stories of the people who live it every day.
Before the presentation began, Thomas Rice, executive director of Mirakal's Love for Lives Inc., sat waiting in front of the wall lined with the sheets of paper.
"I am here to see what their plans are for trying to remedy this problem and work with this situation," he said.
MLFL Inc. is a group that works with the homeless -- including homeless veterans -- men re-entering society after serving time in jail or prison and people living with a low to very-low income level. Rice has been up-close to the pains of poverty for the last three years with MLFL Inc., being well-versed in the contributing factors that lead to people slipping between the cracks.
"It's a combination of things, jobs and putting stability into one's life," he said.
"My thing, this is, me, we fall on hard times and hard spots and there are limited resources when a person goes to inquire about getting assistance or help. It is kind of like they get passed over or passed around."
The report is titled "Goldsboro: Isolation and Marginalization in Eastern North Carolina," and Dr. Gene Nichol presented the stark numbers and sobering narratives he and co-writer Heather Hunt compiled.
"Unlike other poverty research funds, we turn -- powerfully, I think -- to narratives, to interviews, to the words of Tarheels living in poverty and those who are spending their lives trying to help them," Nichol said.
"That combination of data and narrative has seemed to us to work better than dry and lifeless statistics that are ignored. Though you need the statistics, too, because otherwise people will object that you have only uncovered a person or two who have brought some difficulty on themselves. Our hope is to shine a light, even if it is a small light, but a light, which you will hopefully make brighter, of the challenges of economic distress here in your home county."
Nichol said "the story is a rough one."
THE DATA AND THE VOICES:
The percentage that Nichol coined "one of the most striking" in the findings is the sharp decline of Wayne County's middle class. Between 2000 and 2016, the percentage of adults in the middle class dropped from 60 percent to 48 percent, with the median income in Goldsboro coming in at $32,000.
To break the numbers down further, 46 percent of households make under $30,000 a year; 29 percent make under $60,000 a year; and 13 percent make under $10,000, according to the report.
Nichol put the percentage of people making under $10,000 a year in perspective, comparing it to the state's percentage.
"North Carolina's state rate is 8 percent, as opposed to 13, and North Carolina's state rate is way too high as well," he said.
Only 9 percent of people locally make more than $100,000 a year.
"In North Carolina, it is more than double that," Nichol said.
Nichol also said income levels are very different, according to the data, based on race.
"It also won't surprise you, but it will distress you, to learn that income varies dramatically here by race," he said.
White families in the city make $20,000 a year more on average than black or Latino families, and over half of black families make less than $30,000 a year.
"By race, poverty is excruciating, 13 percent of whites and 34 percent of blacks in Goldsboro are poor," he said.
The findings of the report show that 40 percent of children live in poverty -- and for black children, the percentage is even higher at 50 percent.
"Half of black kids live in wrenching poverty," Nichol said.
"One in four kids are hungry, and one in five adults."
"Goldsboro: Isolation and Marginalization in Eastern North Carolina" included narratives intertwined with numbers from people living in the high-poverty areas of the city as well as community volunteers who are trying to ease the pain of such distressing economic realities.
"Goldsboro's poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated and racialized; concentrated poverty is doubly tough," Nichol said.
"You have to deal with your own hardship and that of a lot of folks around you."
Shirley Edwards, local civil rights and community activist, shared many of her views on the state of poverty in the city that was published in the report. In the report, she addresses high-concentration areas head-on.
"We have about 10 big public housing facilities in Wayne County," Edwards said in the report.
"The poor who live there are separated off, segregated out. That breeds discontent and disconnection. Crime multiplies there, because everyone around you is facing difficulty and desperation. Their lack of meaningful and effective education keeps them from being able to escape, or even think that they can or that they ought to be able to escape."
FINDING THE SOLUTIONS:
Community leaders offered varying opinions and suggestions on how Goldsboro and Wayne County can improve the poverty levels. Goldsboro Mayor Chuck Allen, who was privy to what the preliminary poverty study data entailed before the presentation Wednesday, gave a few opening remarks ahead of the full presentation of the findings.
He said there were three primary causes of poverty in the community. For Allen, those causes are education, or lack thereof, lack of jobs or job skills and multi-generational poverty "where some folks still think it is OK that they live that way, and they don't know any better."
He highlighted the need to improve pre-K education, so that when children go into kindergarten they are not behind the curve.
He said that when students graduate from high school, they should be trained to enter into a job field or be prepared to pursue higher education.
"On the jobs side, when a kid gets to high school, when that kid graduates from high school, if he or she is not trained to do a job, or he or she is not going to higher education, we have failed that kid," he said.
Allen said affordable housing has become a "big issue in our community," but the "housing authority is doing a really good job."
"I think they are trying to do some good, productive things in affordable housing, along with some other folks," Allen said.
"The problem you have in the low-wealth areas, you have higher crime rate. Higher crime leads to more blight, people not wanting to move back, people not wanting to invest in these communities. So, how do we work to make these areas to make people want to live in them? I do know that the housing authority is putting a lot of the money of redoing areas, along with some private investment stuff. I think, long-term, that will get better."
He also stressed that the poverty study and data was not indicative of racial issues, but rather poor decision making on the part of the youth.
"I think that the other thing that is really important, I don't care if you're poor, rich, black or white or Hispanic, we need to make people understand that the decisions they make, the people they hang out with affect them the rest of their lives," he said.
He called for an increase in community involvement and collaboration, saying the solution to poverty cannot be achieved at the state, county or school board level.
"And I can tell you that the state, the county or the school board, nobody is going to fix this problem if the community doesn't care enough to get involved to fix it. With all of us getting involved, the more cohesive we are, the more unified we are, the more we collaborate, the better it is going to be, the better the results are going to be. I can tell you, the folks that are poor, they need us. They need us to help them, they need us to champion for them," Allen said.
Panelist Patricia Beier, executive director of WAGES, suggested that honesty about the issues surrounding the stark poverty numbers from the report was the first step in getting to a more lasting solution.
Her recommendation garnered an enthusiastic response from the audience.
"It is not about blaming anybody, or pointing the finger, it is about having honest conversations and, as Dr. Nichol mentioned, and as I do at WAGES, you have to bring the people to the table who are experienced in poverty and who are living in it every day," Beier said.
She stressed that the community and its leaders have to understand the gravity of the situation as it is. She said that parents are the first teachers of children, but that shouldn't be the end of addressing systematic, multigenerational poverty. And developing partnerships with community groups is a necessity, as well as with the "people who are actually living in poverty."
"I believe that the majority of people want to do better, they just don't have the resources or the knowledge or the tools to get there," she said.
"So if we are going to be as great as we need to be as a community, we have to take into account, as a society, not just in Wayne County, stop blaming the poor for all the ills of society. People are not just poor because they want to be poor. And the concept that we have in America, that everybody can get ahead if we just pull ourselves by our bootstraps -- what if you don't have any boots? What if your grandmother doesn't have boots? How can you pull yourself up by your bootstraps? It's not that people want to live in poverty, they want better, but they haven't had the opportunity."