Decade of Neglect

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 20 No. 4, "Fast Forward." Find more from that issue here.

When Ronald Reagan joked during the 1980s that the war on poverty was over — and that poverty had won — many people didn’t see the humor. Instead, they saw his pronouncement as a declaration of retreat from the fight against poverty, with devastating results for America’s poor.

The impact was felt in Roanoke, Virginia. Over the course of four Sundays last summer, reporters Mike Hudson, Douglas Pardue, and Neal Thompson took a comprehensive look at rising poverty in the city — and at the failed public policies behind poor housing, jobs, schools, and health care.

Other Winners

For feature reporting in Division One (circulation over 100,000):

Second prize to Edward Pratt of The Advocate for his disturbing and sensitive look at life with violence and distress for black children and their families in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Third prize to Randy Lee Loftis of The Dallas Morning News for his detailed yet highly readable examination of the deteriorating environmental quality in Texas.

Roanoke, Va. — If you have to be poor, Herb McBride says, Roanoke is a great place. “You can find a job, a place where you’ll be treated decently. There’s excellent public housing and very good social services.”

McBride has heard that from lots of poor people in the 10 years he’s run the city’s public housing program. “They can always get something to eat,” he says. “They can go to the Salvation Army. They can go to the soup kitchen. . . . They can go to the dumpsters — you might have to take one half of the banana and throw it away, but you can eat the other half.”

Welcome to Roanoke, an All-American City.

Poor people eating out of trash cans isn’t what Roanoke leaders want others to see. Instead, they boast about Roanoke’s nationally ranked schools, health programs, and world-renowned anti-poverty efforts — qualities that have helped win All-American City honors four times.

They’d rather not dwell on the fact that more and more of the city’s new jobs are low paying and part-time. And they’d rather not dwell on the fact that nearly half of Roanoke’s children live under or near the poverty line. These children are victims of a decade of neglect — when Roanoke, a city of 96,000, polished its image but failed to make up for state and federal cuts in welfare, education, and housing.

Social workers say the cuts and low-paying jobs have left the city’s poor worse off than they were a decade ago. “The programs to assist people have just been demolished in the last 10 years,” says Ted Edlich, director of a private agency called Roanoke’s Total Action Against Poverty known around the world as a model for helping the poor help themselves. “Organizations such as ours — which were part of the real safety net — have just been decimated.”

There’s another side of Roanoke, Edlich says, one hidden by the blue “All-American City” signs and the leftover glow of once-imposing social programs. The other side includes struggling families like Janice Hash, 43, her three children, and two grandchildren.

Until a few weeks ago, Hash and her family lived in a house with peeling pink trim. For $500 a month, they got crumbling plaster, a furnace that conked out much of February, roaches that teemed over the pots and pans, and mice in the crawl space between the ceiling and the upstairs apartment. Hash’s 11-year-old daughter, Cathy, says a mouse once fell through the living room ceiling onto her face as she napped on the couch.

Hash never complained to housing inspectors. And she never complained when the landlord raised the rent from $365. She was afraid she’d be kicked out, end up homeless, and lose custody of her kids. “When you’ve got kids and nowhere else to go and you’re on welfare and have no credit, you have got to take what you can get.”

The city’s leaders would rather not dwell on Janice Hash or the house on Fourth Street — or hundreds of other families trapped in decaying homes just like it. They want people to see what’s happening along Campbell Avenue’s west end, where construction workers are busy along a row of rotted houses, replacing shattered windows, splashing paint on dingy clapboard, and restoring sagging porches.

The project is one of Roanoke’s latest efforts to bolster its All-American image. The city is investing $600,000 in the West End, funneling grants and loans to landlords renovating some of the city’s worst houses.

City officials are spending the money because they want to do something about shoddy housing. But they picked the West End for one reason — to impress commuters who drive in each day from well-to-do neighborhoods. City officials even checked to see exactly how many cars pass by — 12,710 a day.


Cheese Lines

While the city tries to impress commuters along Campbell Avenue, it doesn’t talk about what happened two months ago on another street. In a scene reminiscent of the Great Depression, hundreds of Roanoke families stood outside the National Guard Armory for hours for a chance to get free surplus food from the city welfare department.

Food started running out after 2,500 families trudged through the line. Fights broke out as men and women pushed and shoved to get inside for the few remaining packages of cheese, rice, flour, or peanut butter. Max and Treva Ayers stood in line for three mornings and got just two pounds of butter. “It looked worse than them guys giving the food away to the Kurds,” Max said.

The food lines are a painful reminder that the recession and federal cutbacks have hurt many Roanokers, according to Mayor Noel Taylor. He says the city has not glossed over its poverty problem. There hasn’t been a lot of public debate about poverty in the last decade, but many people have been working quietly to help the poor, he says. “There is a need. I know it’s there. And I know it’s great. But how do you do more with less?”

Jim Ritchie, city director of human services, says, “Roanoke has everything it takes to make it work” — except the money. “I’m very pessimistic about the next couple of years.”

The prices of life’s necessities — rent, electricity, food, heat — have gone up while money for the poor has gone down, says Welfare Superintendent Corinne Gott. “It’s been a bad decade. We’re going to see some real tragedies happen to American families. See them marked, scarred, and damaged.”

To hear the city’s business, education, and political leaders, it’s been a great decade. Their version of Roanoke can be seen in a report released this spring by the United Way and the Council of Community Services. Poverty is hardly mentioned in the 84-page document. One of the few times the report discusses the poor is in a paragraph linking poverty to rising crime. The report concentrates on Roanoke’s low unemployment, its award-winning schools, its model social and health programs, its compassion for the needy.


Low-Wage Hot Spot

Roanoke’s boosters emphasize that unemployment is well below the rest of the nation — just 4.7 percent in May — but the figure hides the fact that more and more jobs pay barely above the minimum wage, which inched up to $4.25 an hour in April. Welfare officials say it takes at least $6.50 for a single parent with one child to be better off working than living on welfare.

Virginia Employment Commission figures show that well-paying factory jobs are being replaced by lower-wage jobs in the trade and service industries. The Roanoke Valley lost 1,500 manufacturing jobs in the past decade. Part-time jobs, which often offer no medical insurance or benefits, make up 60 percent of the Roanoke-area job openings listed with the VEC — more than double the percentage of four years ago.

The civic leaders who wrote the report on Roanoke’s future say the city has “every requisite for commercial and industrial success in the modern world.” They say one of the city’s main economic weaknesses is “a nagging problem of self-doubt, a feeling of somehow missing the boat.” They deal with underemployment in a single sentence: “The other side of the coin, apparently, is that most new jobs created are in the service sector, and are relatively low-paying.”

The other side of the coin is families like Tex and Marsha Kintyle, hard workers living on the edge of poverty. They drove into Roanoke last fall with their infant son Adam, $5,000 in savings, and plans to start a business selling discount coupon booklets. They chose Roanoke because they heard it was a big retail center — a city that Inc. magazine calls one of the 100 business hot spots in the nation.

By December, their business had failed, and Marsha was standing in line at the Salvation Army to get Christmas toys for Adam. They had no money, couldn’t repair their car, and discovered one of the many roadblocks for Roanoke’s poor — a dollar for a bus ride is too much for people who barely have enough money to buy baby formula. As they scoured the want ads, the Kintyles survived on emergency food coupons and rental aid from the city welfare department.

Marsha got a job in January, making $5 an hour as a nurse’s aide. She almost lost the job before she started because she couldn’t afford a uniform. At the last minute, Halmode Apparel donated two uniforms to her.

Tex, overweight and sickly, had even more trouble. He passed time clipping coupons, baby-sitting Adam, and dreaming of winning the lottery. He finally got a job in May as a telephone solicitor for the Roanoke Firefighters Association, making $6 an hour.

The Kintyles have caught up on their back rent, but they still can’t afford to get the car fixed. Most of their spare cash goes to pay Adam’s sitter $50 a week. They’re a paycheck from disaster. If one gets sick or loses a job, it’s back to welfare, Marsha says. “We’re so sick of it here.”


Kids at Risk

Roanoke’s All-American image got a boost last year when Parenting magazine listed the city as one of the 10 best “Family Cities” in the nation. The magazine chose Roanoke because of its low crime rate, the availability of jobs and day care, and efforts to improve the schools.

Statistics kept by the state Department of Youth and Family Services show another side of Roanoke. The agency ranks Roanoke as the seventh worst place for children among all Virginia localities — based on rates of juvenile crime, school drop-outs, reading failure, teen pregnancy, child abuse, and children on welfare.

Roanoke’s reputation as a good place for children rests mainly with its schools, but critics say the schools spend too much time trying to prevent white flight and not enough helping the poor. City educators say they face a tough challenge. Increasingly, many Roanoke schoolchildren come from families and neighborhoods that are disintegrating.

Many are children like 11-year-old Jerome. He and his two brothers have different fathers. Jerome lives with his mother, who is on welfare, but he rarely sees her because she works days and is out a lot at night. One of his brothers deals crack and beats him.

Jerome last saw his father when they walked past each other at the Hurt Park public housing project. “I don’t know if he recognized me,” Jerome says. His father didn’t remember his birthday, even though he had promised to take Jerome out. “For Christmas, he promised me a bike or a skateboard. He didn’t come that day either.”

 Jerome’s grades are bad. He was banned from an after-school program after he defecated on the floor. He stole Nintendo cartridges from a department store but got off with a judge’s warning. “I learned,” Jerome says. He slumps in a chair with his head down and squints at his homework. He has lost the free glasses he was given to help him read.


Cold Comfort

Community leaders have long bragged that Roanoke has a good safety net for the poor. They say that reputation attracts low-income people from surrounding counties that don’t offer the public housing, homeless shelters, and public transportation that Roanoke does.

This year, City Council contributed more than $300,000 to private welfare agencies and spent nearly $2.6 million on the city Department of Social Services. That sounds impressive, but it’s less than the city spends on garbage collection. The city actually spends little more on the welfare department than the minimum needed to draw in matching federal and state dollars.

A 1989 study found that 52 local governments in Virginia spent more per resident in “local-only” dollars for their welfare departments — money above what the state requires. Roanoke spent less than $30,000 in local-only money in 1988 — about 30 cents per resident. Fairfax spent nearly $10.6 million ($ 13.72 per resident), Chesapeake nearly $1.5 million ($10.36 per resident), and Portsmouth almost $589,000 ($5.35 per resident).

Tight federal, state, and local budgets have left the city Department of Social Services struggling to respond to a growing need. In the past three years, applications for food stamps have soared; the number of families getting food stamps has grown from 3,400 to 4,600. The understaffed agency has been deluged with families that urgently need help because of layoffs or illnesses.

The families must often wait. Superintendent Gott says her agency takes an average of 30 days to process applications for welfare. That’s much faster than many other welfare departments in the state, she says, but still not as fast as she’d like. Families who need housing help also must wait — often for years. The waiting list for the city’s “Section 8” subsidized housing program has nearly 700 families.

Even when poor people can get help from programs ravaged by budget cuts, they may not get much. Henry Woodward of the Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley says many landlords who renovate old houses and try to get them into the Section 8 program cut costs by putting in electric baseboard heat. Electric heat is cheaper to install, but it often creates appalling bills for tenants in older, poorly insulated homes. The Redevelopment and Housing Authority provides loans and grants to these landlords, Woodward says, but it doesn’t care what kind of heat the landlords install — or how much it costs the tenants later.

Gail Bullard, a single mother of two who is fighting to stay off welfare, found a place she liked last summer, a remodeled five-room duplex. The housing authority approved it for Section 8 and began paying all but $115 of her rent each month.

It seemed perfect — until the weather turned cold. Bullard says she would wake up in the night so cold she’d have to tie a scarf over her ears. She turned up the heat, but it did little good. Her youngest child, three years old, stayed sick with throat and ear infections. Then the electric bills began piling up like freight cars in a derailment: $181 for the first month, then $225, $265, $228, and $242. For Bullard, the heat bills — during one of the city’s mildest winters — meant Section 8 housing was no longer affordable. “They shouldn’t move low-income people into these places,” she says.

Bullard wanted out. Her landlord wouldn’t let her break her year’s lease. The housing authority repeatedly told her it couldn’t help her. Bullard, who makes $4.95 an hour as a part-time nurse’s aide, couldn’t pay off her bill — which reached more than $1,100.

On May 8, Appalachian Power shut off her electricity. A week later, Earl Saunders, who directs the Section 8 program, persuaded the landlord to let Bullard move — as long as another tenant could be found.


A City with Heart

Even people who say Roanoke’s poor don’t get enough help add that the city still has a big heart. “There’s a lot of caring in Roanoke,” says Ritchie, the human resources director. “It’s one of the reasons I think it’s the best place to live in the world.” When Total Action Against Poverty’s headquarters burned two days before Christmas 1989, Roanokers pitched in with money, office space, typewriters, artwork, a refrigerator, a postage meter.

Roanoke has not responded as well to more long-term social needs. The United Way of Roanoke Valley — the biggest fundraiser for private social agencies — takes in less per resident than many other United Ways. Last year, residents gave an average of $19.14. People in other Mid-Atlantic cities gave more — $41.71 in Winston- Salem, $35.64 in Chattanooga, $24.28 in Lynchburg, $22.07 in Richmond.

Robert Kulinski, executive director of United Way of Roanoke Valley, says a free health clinic and other private programs have helped ease the effects of poverty and make it seem less obvious than it is in bigger cities. “It’s not as apparent, but it’s just as real.”

A bit of that reality shook Roanoke last Christmas. On December 19, an unemployed construction worker searching for cans in a Southwest Roanoke dumpster found a whimpering newborn, wrapped in a blanket and stuffed inside a garbage bag. As the child — dubbed Baby Isaiah — lay in intensive care, Roanokers donated money, clothing, toys. Some offered to adopt him. When he died on Christmas Eve, people offered grave sites and tombstones.

Ritchie, a social worker for four decades , is frustrated that people don’t realize Roanoke has many children like Baby Isaiah, cast off because of poverty and social decay.

“They’re not in garbage cans. They’re alone in apartments.”