Section I: Overview

Winston-Salem and its surrounding Forsyth County feature both enviable assets and distressing shortcomings. Five thriving colleges/universities, deep philanthropic and community-engagement traditions, a host of rich cultural offerings, and next-generation businesses and nonprofits that give real meaning to the “City of Arts & Innovation” designation: all these help make the area a desirable destination for new residents and organizations alike, evidenced by robust population growth (up over 20% since 2000). Sustained local efforts have boosted the high-school graduation rate, expanded job opportunities, and effectively ended homelessness among military veterans.

At the same time, Winston-Salem and Forsyth County exhibit disproportionately high levels of poverty and social dysfunction, measured in multiple ways. Five years ago, Winston-Salem had the highest rate of food insecurity of any city in America, and continues to languish among the bottom 10 cities.  Health outcomes among lower-income households trail those of higher-income residents by dramatic gaps.  Unemployment levels outpace those of similarly-sized cities in the Southeast.  Safe affordable-housing options are expanding, but slowly. A concerted effort to enhance public education has seen both successes and setbacks, leaving too many of our children underachieving in school.

Against this backdrop of promising opportunities and daunting challenges, Mayor Joines with support from the City Council formed in fall 2015 a “Poverty Thought Force” (PTF) and asked it to come up with a list of recommendations that are both feasible and impactful for reducing the poverty rate in Winston-Salem.

This report on PTF activities and recommendations comprises four sections:
I. Overview and description of our approach to understanding poverty in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County;
II. A detailed empirical report on constituent aspects of poverty, including comparisons to a set of “peer cities,” prepared by Forsyth Futures;
III. A set of recommendations for action, endorsed by our 18-member Thought Force; and
IV. Reflections on desirable next steps in the vital work of poverty alleviation and prevention.

Our Thought Force’s year-long engagement was informed by a wide range of advisers and community members. We engaged anti-poverty advocates and organizers, many of whom have devoted their careers to this cause; experts on various aspects of poverty, located both locally and nationally; concerned citizens who contribute resources of time, creative ideas, and money to help make a difference; and—most of all—residents living temporarily or longer-term in impoverished conditions, seeking a better life for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. These extraordinary helping hands are too many to name individually; we dedicate this report to them.

Community-Based Approach

Our Thought Force efforts proceeded from a basic commitment: that poverty-alleviation ideas and strategies would arise primarily from extended conversation and consultation with community members. No shortage exists across the U.S. and globe of anti-poverty programs, policies, ideas, pilots, workshops, and the like. Yet poverty stubbornly persists, across the U.S. and worldwide, including in North Carolina and our own community. Evidence suggests that local solutions, generated and/or reviewed by a community’s residents, are the likeliest route to improvement; the best anti-poverty research reaffirms the value of understanding and addressing poverty in a specific time and place. Early in our conversations we identified five major areas of concentration, listed alphabetically below:

  • Education
  • Health
  • Housing/Homelessness
  • Hunger/Food Insecurity
  • Jobs/Workforce Development

These did not preclude consideration of other important constituents of poverty, such as crime or transportation access. They did provide a substantive focus for our expansive research and community engagement.

Given our locally-based commitment, we organized our work not principally through elaborate programs of study or a cascade of outside-expert visits (though we did perform research and engage experts), but primarily around a series of community meetings organized as “World Cafés.”  A more detailed description of the World Café method, as well as specifics from our meetings, is posted on the PTF website. More than 400 people attended our five idea-generating Café sessions, each organized around one of the policy topics above; attendees at each represented a cross-section of Forsyth County, by design including a mix of residents living in poverty, nonprofit advocates, business and education leaders, seniors, and a group of interested locals. The dates and discussion prompts for these World Cafés are contained in Appendix C.

Subsequently we held a sixth Café, intended exclusively for low-income residents, to review our initial recommendations for action: further details are on this page below.

Our initial five World Café sessions generated hundreds of ideas for improvement and change. We focused specifically on policy recommendations—proposals for government action, perhaps in partnership with non-governmental organizations. As a Thought Force convened by the Mayor and responsive to the City Council as well, ideas that the city and, where appropriate, county or state can act on were a key emphasis.

Those World Café conversations, supplemented by surveys, discussions, and analyses, helped us translate hundreds of ideas into a list of around 60 policy recommendations, across our five areas (Education, Health, Housing, Hunger, Jobs).  These ideas were selected because, compared to other options, they ranked as high-impact (would make a difference if implemented) and high-feasibility (could plausibly be launched in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, within the next year or so). Rankings were by more than 200 community members—all of whom had attended at least one Café—PTF members, and additional thought leaders in the region/nationally who work on or research poverty alleviation.

In October 2016, our initial list of recommendations was explored—again in a World Cafe format, to maximize input from each attendee—by participants personally familiar with the rigors of living in poverty.  As Thought Force member Keisha Wisley pointed out, “the best test of whether an idea might work is to ask the people it is intended to help.” Like previous Cafes, scribes recorded all conversations, ensuring attentive review of every idea raised there.  Our initial recommendations were revised—and, in some cases, newly added or scrapped—based on that rich set of discussions.

Section III features the result of all this work, organized in three categories.

  • First we offer five overarching conclusions, arising from community advice as well as our Thought Force deliberations.
  • Second, given the importance of connecting anti-poverty work in Winston-Salem to comprehensive national efforts, we have listed nine exemplary national initiatives, such as “Purpose-Built Communities” or the GE-sponsored “Healthy Cities Initiative.”  We strongly recommend that Winston-Salem become an active member of one or more initiatives. These could provide additional resource support, as well as a central focus for coordinating action. 
  • Third, we provide a set of 56 community/PTF policy recommendations, organized across our five “action areas.” Each is a thoroughly reviewed, community-generated idea. (Those recommendations are described in more detail, including related local initiatives and community responses, in Appendix A.

Section IV summarizes our Thought Force’s suggested next steps.  The essential work of implementation will involve better coordination of and publicity for current anti-poverty efforts across our city/county, likely along with launching new initiatives. PTF members would be glad to provide assistance--recognizing that some may need to step off, given other time commitments.  Perhaps until a new individual or small group takes the reins (as the city’s “poverty czar”), we would be honored to continue engaging community groups, local stakeholders, and potential funders in the vital work of, A. securing commitment for implementing these ideas, and B. monitoring progress and proposing adjustments/new policies as needed.

Section II follows, featuring an extensive review of poverty in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County—along with comparisons to similarly-situated cities/counties in the Southeastern U.S.