May 6, 2015
Worlds Apart: How Rome’s wealth and income are geographically linked
Two of every five households in Rome’s poorest areas are living below the poverty line.
by Sarah Carroll
ROME, Ga. – Ernest Newton has been living in homeless shelters on and off for over a decade, or since he determined that continuing to try to live off of money generated by odd jobs simply wouldn’t work. For him, he says, it’s too late. He’s been left behind.
Charting Rome’s wealth is as simple as unfolding a map of the area on the kitchen table.
The city’s poorest areas, where the median annual household income is $10,000 to $15,000, or less than half of Rome’s overall median annual household income, can be found in the very heart of the city, according to City-data.com, including:
- Along Maple Avenue
The downtown area, which has a residential population of only about 700 people, gathers households reporting a median annual household income of roughly $30,000, or double that of the three “poor” or under-resourced areas, which are near, even adjacent to downtown Rome.
Go just outside of the downtown area into neighborhoods such as Sherwood Forest and Judy Mountain. There you will find neighborhoods reporting median annual household incomes of around $70,000, or more than twice that of households downtown and as much as seven times that of the homes along Maple Avenue.
These disparities are perhaps the results of “positive self-selection,” according to Wendy Davis, a Rome City commissioner.
“People want to live with those who think like they do, look like they do, dress like they do,” she said. “There are elements of self-segregation that aren’t inherently negative, but ultimately, in separating ourselves, there are going to be biases that I don’t think we’re anticipating but we’re perpetuating.”
Another influence is the relatively large medical community in the city, according to Lauren Heller, assistant professor of economics at Berry College. This concentration produces gaps between “haves” and “have-nots,” she said.
“Rome is a medical hub, which I think is a great thing, but doctors tend to be on the higher end of the spectrum,” she said. “But it skews the distribution” of wealth.
Wide income gulfs
Just over 2,800 Rome residents reported a household income of between $10,000 and 20,000, according to City Data for the year 2009. Roughly 1,500 people reported living off of even less than that, while the same number reported earning five to six times as much, or household incomes between $50,000 and $60,000. These are wide gulfs, creating very different worlds or realities for different sectors of the city.
An individual reporting an annual income of $11,670 lives under the poverty line, according to the 2014 Federal Poverty Guidelines for Georgia. For two people in one household, the poverty line becomes $15,730, while for three people the threshold is $19,790.
If physical geography is one unmistakable correlation when examining wealth distribution, race is another. Two out of every five households in Rome’s poorest areas are living below the poverty line.
In Rome’s least resourced neighborhoods, nearly 60% of the population is black, according to City Data. In these same areas, more than a third live below the poverty line (38%), compared to 21% for all of Rome.
Put another way, if a household’s annual income is more than $30,000, there is an 80% chance that household is white and only a 1-in-20 chance it is black, according to City Data reports based on census data for 2009-2013.
If these large and growing disparities are simply “self-segregation,” no one is to blame, right? Why should, for example, a wealthy white resident of Rome give these disparities any attention?
“We are all family, whether people want to acknowledge it or not,” said Billy Moore, a black survivor of Georgia’s death row and a counselor to death row inmates nationally. He is also an ordained minister. “It’s just that my skin is black and yours is white. But that doesn’t make any difference because that is the difference: it’s what you see on a surface level.”
Poverty’s insidious correlations with race help to explain how two people different only by race can live in entirely distinct and often separate realities, even in the same town. Blacks are:
- nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated
These startling disparities are revealed in a new video from Brave New Films, which also reveals that blacks are:
- quoted higher prices for cars
Even doctors were found to be less likely to alert blacks to an important heart procedure than they were to alert their white patients, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.
Georgia’s poverty line
The correlations and interconnections add up to a racism so systemic that rooting out causes is difficult to do. But the cumulative result in terms of economic disadvantage for minorities is clear.
And Rome’s income disparities and geographically correlated wealth distributions aren’t unique, at least in kind. The wealth gaps separating whites and blacks in the United States are at their worst levels since 1989, according to Pew Research. In 2013, the differential showed white households bringing in 13 times that of black households as a national average, according to Pew.
The data show that blacks and Hispanics already under the poverty line in 2010 have sunk even lower since then due to the recession, making breaking through the poverty line yet more difficult. White households, on the other hand, had an easier time recovering from the recession because financial assets such as stocks regained their value faster than did, say, housing.
Pew Research’s data also show that white households are more likely than black or other minority households to own stocks through retirement accounts. Thus, when the economy turns sluggish, white households have more of a cushion.
Ernest Newton, 60, and a resident of the William S. Davies Shelter in Rome, said those who are dependent on monthly checks from the Supplemental Security Income program get sucked into a sort of cycle. Because they can’t afford housing, the majority of the subsidy goes to motel costs. Because they receive a check from the SSI, they aren’t eligible to receive food stamps. Not surprisingly, many turn to alcohol. The Davies Shelter is a community supported, faith based organization that serves homeless men ages 18-years-old and over.
“Once they do get the checks, they go straight to the motel room,” he said. “They party for two or three days, then they’re back on the street. That’s just the way it is.”
After monthly expenses are paid, a person may be left with as little as $16 to spare on food and other necessities, he said.
“You just can’t live that way,” he said. “You’ve got to have housing. You ain’t making enough to live in a motel. And you’ve got to figure out a way to eat.”
For others, it’s simply difficult to ask for help, regardless of how much they need that help.
“For me, I don’t know if you want to call it pride or just being stupid or whatever, but it’s hard for me to ask for something,” said Billy Cronan, also a resident of the Bill Davies Shelter. “It really tugs at you, to do something like that. But sometimes you ain’t got no choice.”
Newton said another struggle is overcoming the stereotypes people have of the homeless.
“Nobody trusts us,” he said. “We’re homeless. We’re going to steal your stuff when you turn your back. That’s what they think.”
Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist church in Rome, said that the root of attributing false reasons for another’s misfortunes is simply a lack of empathy.
“We see someone disadvantaged and automatically think ‘lazy,’” he said. “We automatically think, ‘entitled.’ We ascribe these things, when we really have absolutely no idea what they’ve been through.”
Snider said the individualistic, ego-obsessed culture we live in works against the cultivation of empathy. But, he said, we should not stop pushing back.
“Imagine a world where everyone looks after themselves and no one else,” Snider said. “Do you want to live in that world?”
The census data for Rome suggests that to some degree, the world Snider fears is already here.
“A world of no empathy is a dark place,” he said.
Worlds Apart stories
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A look into the tensions between races caused by the injustices of wealth distribution.
The myths and unanswered questions about wealth inequality.
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What the wealthy can do.
What's the cost of looking at ourselves honestly?
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