I very likely will never be dirt-poor again. But I have been.
When my parents were divorced, and I stayed with my mother while my father worked out his midlife crisis, we lived in an apartment that rented for $170 a month in North Charleston.
I don’t mean to brag. We couldn’t have afforded that on our own. That’s why, at one point, we had two aunts and three cousins living with us in the 500-square-foot space.
We were poor, and there was no glamour to it.
I don’t think about poverty as a firsthand thing anymore. I don’t think of the cheap ground beef, the window air conditioner from a bygone era, of the neighbors who all seemed to have something profoundly wrong with them (a mental issue, a moral failing, a faraway look in the eye and a penchant for “Numb Chucks” and Chinese stars).
And I don’t think of the dude my mom took up with, an abusive Vietnam vet, to split bills.
Never think about it. As soon as we were able to get to something better, we did.
It was only a few years. It Worked Out.
Not everyone can say they escaped.
Including, especially, many people in Jacksonville.
A recent meeting of the Economic Development Incentives Committee in City Hall included an exhibit on economically distressed areas — as if my drives through Durkeeville, Grand Park, Midwest and Northwest didn’t show me indicators of where our society has left its most vulnerable to their own devices, consigning the poor and poorly educated and poorly fed to a generational cycle of despair and infrastructural decrepitude.
These EDIC-exhibited economically distressed areas were rated on four factors.
Income below poverty line was one; 20 percent was the demarcation point. Of 174 Duval County census tracts, 64 fall into that crack.
Unemployment equal to or greater than 15.5 percent, 125 percent higher than the 12.5 percent (REAL, not cooked) unemployment rate over the last five years. Forty-five census tracts on that list.
Median household income below $28,550? Twenty-nine tracts. And median housing value below $86,401? Thirty tracts.
Many census tracts satisfied all four conditions, when only three were required to be distressed.
Census tract 3, on the Eastside, has 51.2 percent of its residents below the poverty line, a number helped along by an 18 percent unemployment rate. And get this: a $23,158 median household income.
To get there, many households are below $23K a year. How do you live on that and stay completely legal? How do you live on that and not feel that you’ve been cheated, day in, day out?
Nearby census tract 10, meanwhile, is even worse. There, 65.3 percent of residents are below the poverty line; 60.3 percent are unemployed. Median household income? $10,789 … and you probably need a lot of people making that much to buy your $65K house.
Your super-distressed areas are on the Eastside. They also line I-10, pushing north about halfway toward I-295. There’s one in Arlington, too, around the Century 21 complex.
Jesus said the poor will always be with us. And you get the sense that’s true. Even as there are things being done to help.
There’s the Jacksonville Journey relaunch, which means money devoted to things like library access programs for children and young adults, including remedial education services. And money devoted to reentry services for reformed felons.
And, just last week, the GE Foundation partnered with the city to facilitate $250,000 worth of cardiovascular health screenings over the next two years. Most of those screenings will benefit people in Health Zone 1, which encompasses many of these distressed areas.
Rep. Mia Jones (D-District 14), whose Agape Community Health Center Network will handle the screenings, pointed out to the crowd of luminaries who had driven across town to the Legends Center on Soutel Drive that in HZ1, you can sometimes see someone who is 30 to 40 years old who’s had a stroke.
That’s one of the consequences of living in a food desert, like the people in New Town do, where you have to change buses twice to get to a grocery store at Gateway. So with fresh food options closed to you, Popeye’s or Jenkins Quality Barbecue or convenience store food looks damned good.
The folks from Districts 7 through 10 laugh when they hear the new promises, which sound like the old, unfulfilled promises. They have good reason to laugh.
Filmmakers and fiction writers sentimentalize poverty. There’s nothing sentimental about poisoned water, subpar food, toxic mold in the walls, schools where you throw fists before you learn fractions. Nothing to sentimentalize about realizing, day in and day out, that you’d better be more like the people in the neighborhood, or you’ll catch hell when you’re by yourself and they’re not.
Learn to fight. Or learn to fall.
I very likely will never be dirt-poor again. Thank God. But I still remember it. And if you’re there long enough, odds are good it will derail you, and you won’t even see it coming.