If all of the poor people in the city of Birmingham formed a city of their own, it would be the eighth largest in Alabama. With a population of more than 61,000, that city would be only slightly smaller than Dothan, and larger than Decatur, Auburn, Florence and Gadsden.
And that’s if we define “poor people” strictly as individuals who live in households with income below poverty level — $11,670 for a single individual, and increasing in increments of $4,060 for each additional member of a household. Add the 20,000 or so more souls within our city limits — a very conservative estimate — who are living day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck, on the razor-thin margin of financial viability, and our virtual city of the poor is roughly the size of Hoover, if not a bit larger.
Right here in booming-as-never-before Birmingham, the number of poor people exceeds the number who have college degrees by more than 18,000. It exceeds the number who voted in our municipal election last August by nearly 34,000.
Almost one-quarter of families in Birmingham live below poverty level. In households headed by single mothers (or other females with no husband present) with children under 18, the poverty rate is 49.9 percent. Of all children in the city of Birmingham under 18 years of age, 45 percent live in poverty.
Expand our virtual city to include all 112,000-plus individuals living below poverty in Jefferson County, and it zooms past Tuscaloosa (pop. 90,468) to become Alabama’s fifth largest. Of the 34 municipalities located completely within the bounds of Jefferson County, 17 have poverty rates higher than the national average of 14.9 percent, and 13 of those exceeding the state average of 18.1 percent.
When most people think of poverty in Alabama, they think of the 18-county, mostly rural Black Belt region that stretches across the south central part of the state. The average poverty rate in the Black Belt counties is 28.9 percent — coincidentally, exactly that of the city of Birmingham. In the 10 poorest Jefferson County municipalities — in ascending order from poorest to not-quite-as-poor: Cardiff, Mulga, Tarrant, Trafford, Birmingham, Brighton, Bessemer, Fairfield, Graysville and Center Point — the average poverty rate is 31.5 percent.
Poverty in Jefferson County cuts across racial lines with an equality that would be transformational if it applied in more desirable aspects of our civic life (I’m thinking, among other things, of general residential patterns). Collectively, the population of the 13 JeffCo municipalities where poverty exceeds the statewide rate is 49.5 percent white, 46.7 percent black and 4.8 percent Hispanic/Latino.
To sum up all of the foregoing, poverty in Birmingham and Jefferson County is a wicked problem. Which is a fitting, if not quite elegant, segue into an exciting announcement relative to Weld’s “Poverty in Birmingham” series — the most recent installment of which appears in this issue of our newspaper.
The prior installment in our poverty series drew tremendous response from individuals, groups and organizations offering encouragement, information and assistance in producing the rest of the series. Among those responses was an email from David Hooks, the director of the highly innovative Edge of Chaos program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Launched roughly a year-and-a-half ago by the UAB School of Public Health, the Edge of Chaos is, in David’s words, “designed to capture creativity, innovation and intellectual capital within the University, and to do good things within the community.” To date, Edge of Chaos has hosted more than 900 meetings at its 8,000-square-foot space on the UAB campus, involving more than 25,000 people and dealing with subjects as diverse as mapping the human genome, generating and supporting meaningful art and identifying technological trends of the next decade.
In addition, the Edge of Chaos has developed an intensive, solution-oriented approach to civic and societal issues. This approach is built around discussions that bring together “colliding minds,” perspectives from academia, business, government, the nonprofit sector and the community at large. These discussions, which take place in sessions of a half-day or more — and which are open to the public — are called “Wicked Problem Sessions,” the end product of which is a concrete action plan for attacking the issue at hand.
“Wicked problems are the big ones,” David says. “They’re the problems that plague communities. They have no simple solutions. The Edge of Chaos is a resource where we bring people together to find real, workable solutions to wicked problems.”
In his email a few weeks ago, David suggested that Weld partner with the Edge of Chaos on six “Wicked Problem Sessions,” with each session to follow a corresponding installment of our poverty series. The first session, on housing, will take place from 1 p.m. until 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 19. More details on the first and future sessions will be provided on this website next Monday, and will be published in our print edition next week.
Needless to say, we are extremely pleased at the opportunity to partner with the Edge of Chaos, and to bring to bear the resources of UAB and other interested parties throughout the community on the various issues that overarch the “wicked problem” of poverty. The purpose of our series is not only to highlight the issue of poverty, but also to identify substantive ways and means of alleviating it. I hope that many of our readers will engage themselves in this process as well.