Walter Walker seemed typical of local residents affected by poverty due to job loss or other factors who shared their stories Monday afternoon when a statewide bus tour swung through Mount Airy — as Tea Party members protested nearby.
When handed a microphone, Walker, who’s lived in Mount Airy since he was 9 years old, recited a list of industries where he has both held and lost jobs. It was basically a Who’s Who of Surry County companies that have shut down in recent years.
A former Marine who served near the end of the Vietnam War, Walker told the crowd assembled for “The Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty in North Carolina” that he once worked for Proctor Silex. It was a toaster-maker in Mount Airy that ceased operations more than a decade ago.
Walker then got a job at Renfro Corp., which lasted only a couple of years or so. He later worked for Harvest Time Bread Co., which announced its closure in late March.
“It seemed like every job that I got — I’d work two years and they were out of business, or my job was eliminated, or whatever,” Walker told about 100 people assembled in a parking lot at the corner of Independence Boulevard and Willow Street. Not long ago, that same lot would have been filled with vehicles of textile workers, but they have been laid off and grass now grows unchecked through the cracks in the asphalt.
Most recently, Walker says he has relied on temporary jobs through a local placement service — but even that seems to have run its course. “We don’t get a call to go anywhere, ‘cause there’s nothing here,” he said of the prospects for jobs among its temporary workers.
Person after person made their way to the microphone to tell similar stories during an event led by Dr. William Barber II, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Barber was accompanied by Professor Gene Nichol, director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, and others on the two-day bus tour that began in Guilford County earlier Monday and made its way to Mount Airy.
Its purpose is to document or “put a face” on poverty in western North Carolina in order to influence governmental and other policy to help those in need. City and county officials attended the gathering, as well as Surry representatives of the NAACP and a media contingent.
Local residents assembled under tents and listened as people relayed their stories, which were videoed by members of the tour group.
Vivian Foncesca, 54, of Mount Airy, told the crowd how she worked at Surry County Health and Nutrition Center before losing her job on April 10. “All of a sudden, they fired me,” said Foncesca, who added that she had received great evaluations regarding her work performance, and now doesn’t know where to turn.
“I’ve never been out of a job in all my life,” Foncesca continued. “I feel like a fish out of water.”
Alresa Mason, 49, another Mount Airy resident, offered another sad account.
“I’ve been out of work for three years,” said Mason, who blamed health problems including two heart attacks and a stent placed in her heart last week. Yet, she has been turned down for Medicaid assistance three times.
“They said I was able to work.”
Poverty On Rise
More than 9,000 jobs have been lost in the local area over the last 10 years, according to remarks at Monday’s event, which is part of a larger economic calamity that has gripped the entire nation.
“Every community has felt it,” Barber said in opening statements. “Every citizen has felt it.”
Barber, an outspoken activist on a number of issues, said poverty has been allowed to grow since the 1960s, when rates dropped in response to civil-rights legislation and social programs.
“By the 1980s, poverty was on the rise again,” Barber said. “It went from being a headline to a footnote.”
In the 1960s, the nation had 22 million people living in poverty, which grew to 35 million in the 1980s. By 2005, the figure was 40 million people.
“And then the bottom fell out,” Barber related. “By 2008, we were in the middle of the greatest recession since the Great Depression.”
Tea Party Protesters
As the poverty rally took place in the former industrial parking lot, a small group of protesters with the Surry County Tea Party Patriots stood on a nearby street corner and held up signs. They generally were critical of President Barack Obama, blaming his polices for situations such as people having to survive on food stamps.
“We’re just trying to tell the other side,” Kevin Shinault, one of the protesters, explained to a reporter.
After he arrived in the bus, Barber walked toward the Tea Party group and invited it come over and join the meeting on poverty. “We need the dialogue!” he shouted to the protesters, who declined the invitation.
About the same time, those assembled for the bus tour stop launched into a group singing of “This Little Light of Mine.”
When he addressed the crowd soon after, Barber said poverty is a problem for everyone.
“We need to really have a poverty conversation — not a Republican or Democratic conversation,” he said.
“It stains all of us — it hurts all of us.”
While nearly 18 percent of North Carolinians overall were said to be living in poverty in 2010, the latest figures available — with the rates higher for minorities — the levels could be understated, according to information presented Monday.
Barber cited the governmental definition of poverty, drawing chuckles from the audience, which says a family of four with an annual income of at least $22,100 is not considered poor.
He equated the need to help the poor, as opposed to catering to those at the top of the economic scale, with building a house — given the need to lay a strong foundation. “If the bottom rises, the rest will be taken care of,” Barber said.
Another speaker pointed out that every parking space in the lot hosting the rally once represented a local working family. “Now grass grows in its place.”
Surry NAACP President Faye Carter was pleased with Monday’s turnout and said she hoped the testimonials given can make a difference at some level.
“Things like this, we should see happen more,” Carter said of the gathering.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.