Poverty persists: On Ivy Street in East Durham, immigrant families live in poorly maintained duplexes, some of which are only partly habitable.
Scott Cooper remembers walking into the West Baltimore home, seeing mattresses, four of them, stacked against the living-room wall, and asking the woman if she was moving. It was one of his first house visits as a community organizer for a national nonprofit, and his host was a woman in her early sixties who worked two jobs, one as a janitor for the city schools; he doesn’t recall the other. “No,” she told him, the mattresses were for three of her children and four of her grandchildren.
“Each night, the living room was converted into their bedroom,” Cooper says. “Her children were working, but couldn’t afford to live on their own. She had hoped to retire soon, but now that her children were being forced to move back in with her, she had lost all hope.” Someone, something, had failed her, Cooper says. “I continue to encounter various versions of that scenario throughout the South.”
The U.S. Census Bureau measures poverty based on family size
and how many members of the family are younger than eighteen.
For 2010, a family of four with two children under eighteen was
considered to be living in poverty if the household income was less
than $22,162 a year, or $426 a week. The South—which the Census
Bureau defines as being bordered by Maryland to the north,
Florida to the south, and Texas and Oklahoma to the west—has the highest poverty rate in the country. Take North Carolina as an example. According to Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, 50,000 families in the state went hungry at some point during 2009, and “during the winter of 2010, more than 10,000 homes in North Carolina had no heat, and almost twice that number had no indoor plumbing.”
Cooper ’94, who grew up in West Tennessee as the son of a Methodist minister, is well aware of such daunting facts and figures. He’s not only a product of the South but also a student of its movements. While at Duke, he studied the history of organizing and social-justice work in the South, and it was here that he learned about the North Carolina Fund, an antipoverty initiative launched in 1963 by then-Governor, and future Duke president, Terry Sanford that became a model for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The history of the North Carolina Fund runs deep through the Duke community, and Cooper is among those carrying its legacy forward. He works in Robinsonville, Mississippi, as an organizer for UNITE HERE, which represents workers in the gaming, hotel, and food and beverage industries.
Despite popular perceptions of genteel conservatism, the twentieth century in the South saw its share of antipoverty activism, some of it radical in scope. The legacy of that era is alive in the minds of those who think about poverty in the region today. In 1932, Myles Horton, a union organizer, founded the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, where labor rights workers, civil rights advocates, and other assorted activists still gather to draw strength for struggles to come. And the North Carolina Fund’s early commitment to alleviating poverty was one of the first efforts of its kind in the U.S.