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Struggling for a salary

By Michael Papich Alamance County once boasted a thriving textile industry. Burlington Industries was the largest textile manufacturer in the world and as the central corridor of trade through North Carolina, the county’s economy was doing well.

Then, at the end of the 20th century, Burlington Industries moved to a few different locations outside of the community before eventually filing for bankruptcy. Fast-forward to today and Alamance County has a 7 percent unemployment rate and wages that don’t match the current cost of living.

“If you look at places like Durham and Winston-Salem that had strong industry around tobacco and textiles and had their heyday in previous years, they were places where someone with a high school education could get a pretty decent job with benefits and be able to afford a home,” said Terry Allebaugh, community impact coordinator of the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness. “Those kinds of jobs have gone away.”

In Alamance County, like in much of the state, the only jobs that remain are higher-skill jobs, and Allebaugh said training isn’t taking effect.

“What becomes available is the service industry and custodial work,” he said. “They may pay minimum wage or even above minimum wage, but they hardly pay enough to afford housing that is priced out of their range.”

Kim Crawford, executive director of Allied Churches of Alamance County, said the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour isn’t a livable wage. Screen-Shot-2014-11-19-at-10.08.51-PM

“People manage to get a job in the service industry at minimum wage, but it also generally ends up being part-time which means they cannot afford a place to live,” Crawford said. “It would need to be $13.15 to afford a two-bedroom fair market rent apartment and $10.42 for one-bedroom apartment.”

On top of that, many service industry jobs don’t give employees benefits like healthcare or a retirement plan. And even in part-time jobs where there are benefits, Crawford said employers can have employees work just shy of 40 hours so they don’t qualify. So someone could be working two part-time jobs and get none of the additional support.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the current minimum wage has lost 5.8 percent of its purchasing power due to inflation. By comparison, the federal minimum wage was the highest in 1968, when it was equivalent to $8.56 in 2012 dollars.

Heidi Norwick, president of United Way of Alamance County, said a lack of livable wages has a noticeable impact on the community.

“We have a population of around 155,000 folks in Alamance County,” she said. “The median income for a family of four is around $41,000. To meet basic needs, the cost for a family that size is close to $49,000. So that affects about half of our population.”

United Way, Allied Churches and other charitable organizations have job skill training and other assistance to help residents get onto a sustainable career path.

“We connect people to other services: employment, mental health, education. We know who to connect you to,” Crawford said. “So it is about the relationship what we can introduce you to the right people. It’s networking at its finest and the most basic level.”

But this is difficult with a lack of community resources. There’s no public transportation, funds for job training are limited and, most importantly, jobs are limited.

“Because of the downturn in the economy that we experienced several years ago, a lot of jobs have disappeared,” said Jimmy Taylor, captain of the Salvation Army of Alamance County. “A lot of people are kind of up in arms. ‘What do I do now? I don’t know where to go.’ We see a lot of seniors who come to us. They’ve lost their breadwinner in their family or the one that handled most of the business.”

With work drying up in the county, some people have had to sink their funds into traveling to a new part of Alamance, or even a new part of the state, to get work.

“I think you have begun to see that this is beginning to be a community in which people are having to move outside of the local area in order to find employment opportunities,” said Bill Vincent, executive director of the Alamance County Historical Museum. “Whereas, at one point in time, they might have been able to find work in these mills, that’s no longer always the case today.”

And for people in the county without a job, resources are more limited than ever. After two rounds of cuts by the state’s General Assembly, North Carolina now has the shortest maximum period of unemployment benefits, capping payments at 14 weeks. The size of unemployment payments also shrank.

The pressures of poverty are even greater if a person has been incarcerated, according to Tanya Jisa, founder and executive director of Benevolence Farm, an organization that houses newly released women and has them work on a farm in Graham.

Jisa said if you indicate on a housing or job application that you have been in prison, your chances of getting accepted are “slim to none.”

“If a person receives assistance and support when they return to the community through getting some stable housing, employment and social services, they’re much less likely to return,” she said. “And a person is three times less likely to return if they have a job.”

Housing and employment remain the biggest barriers that can keep a person in poverty, or even keep a person homeless.

“With a cost of housing that is too high to reach and income levels that are too low to make it affordable, a lot of our work is figuring out how to support policies and activities that are going to bring that cost of housing down,” Allebaugh said. “These are the two biggest factors: what is the cost of housing and what is people’s income?”