The Post and Courier's report, “Forgotten South Carolina,” is courageous and timely. We agree that the inequities in our state are shocking and the health and vitality of a community should be measured through the lens of education, poverty and health. But lest anyone believes that our tri-county region is immune to the deprivation outlined in the piece, the facts tell a starkly different story.
The relationship between the basic building blocks of a good life — education financial stability and health — is evident. Improve the education levels in a community and you will move the needle on income and health outcomes. Our state needs to do a better job supporting these pillars in order to improve economic growth for all South Carolinians. That is no less true here in the tri-county region than in Allendale or other counties featured in the series.
Our entire community does not share in the “modern” ranking Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties received in the Post and Courier report. A closer look at census tract data reveals our own deep disparities. The median household income in Allendale, the poorest county in South Carolina, is $8,000 higher than some neighborhoods in North Charleston, where the annual median income hovers around $17,000. In the same urban strip, over 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, which is a higher rate than the poorest counties in South Carolina.
Although many in our region enjoy incomes above the national average, we have more neighborhoods with incomes below the national average. As a region, we are experiencing a decline in unemployment, but our poverty rates have risen in the past three years. In 2011, our region had an estimated 112,000 people living in poverty. These numbers are magnified among children. There are 25 public schools across the tri-county area with over 75 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. There are 13 Zip Codes in our region where at least one in four children live in poverty. In St. Stephen in Berkeley County, in two neighborhoods of North Charleston and in the Neck area of Charleston, over half of the children live in poverty, among the highest rates in the state.
Between 2006 and 2009, obesity rates rose in the tri-county. Berkeley County has one of the highest adult obesity rates in the state. Not coincidentally, an alarming number of food deserts have been identified in rural Berkeley and Dorchester counties and in North Charleston. Food deserts are areas identified as lacking even a single healthy retail food outlet within easy traveling distance of residents, leaving families in both urban and rural neighborhoods with limited access to healthy food. It's easy to see how poor nutrition compounded by poor access to healthy choices can contribute to poor academic outcomes of neighborhood children.
As our region continues to grow and prosper, we cannot ignore or forget the deep economic fissures. Trident United Way is focusing on education, financial stability and health because these are the building blocks essential for individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities to achieve their potential. Having a region with more high school and college graduates, higher incomes, and healthier children and adults will improve the quality of life of all our residents.
For more information about disparities in our three counties, visit tuw.org.
Chris Kerrigan is president and CEO of Trident United Way.