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Volume 7, Number 2

Fall/Winter 2009

Facing Change in Southeastern North Carolina:  How do we Respond?


Leslie Hossfeld

University of North Carolina Wilmington


    Once referred to as the "vale of humility between two mountains of conceit," North Carolina has transformed itself from its humble origins to a progressive state embracing the new millennium.  From the boom of the Research Triangle to the financial banking hub of Charlotte, the state stands out on many indicators of progress, prosperity and leadership.  Yet the very problems that have plagued the state for centuries endure, and the residue of these is the very issue Southeastern North Carolinians must address.  Persistent poverty, affordable housing, low incomes and enduring racial inequalities are the age-old problems plaguing our region.  Coupled with remarkable population growth and a growing immigrant population, the face of Down East is changing and how we respond is critical to our future. 

The Face of Southeastern North Carolina

    There are several definitions of Southeastern North Carolina.  In this paper, I focus on nine counties:  New Hanover, Brunswick, Columbus, Pender, Onslow, Robeson, Sampson, Bladen and Duplin.  The North Carolina Rural Center designates all these counties rural except New Hanover.  All are part of the Southeastern Economic Development Partnership, except for Duplin and Onslow, members of the Eastern Economic Development Partnership.  The North Carolina Department of Commerce ranks counties in the state along three Tier designations representing economic well-being.  Tier 1 designations reflect the most distressed counties in the state; in Southeastern North Carolina Robeson, Bladen, Columbus and Duplin are Tier 1 counties.  Tier 3 designations represent the least distressed counties in the state; in Southeastern North Carolina, both New Hanover and Brunswick counties have Tier 3 designations.  Counties in-between the most and least distressed counties have Tier 2 designations; Sampson, Onslow and Pender reflect these designations for Southeastern North Carolina (North Carolina Department of Commerce 2008).

    The growth in population in the region stands out as one of the most remarkable trends of the Southeast. The attractive coastal region has drawn retirees, relocated businesses and professionals, and has attracted tourist dollars to the area.  Indeed, Brunswick County alone has been identified by the US Census Bureau as the 17th fastest growing county in the nation in 2007 (US Census Bureau 2007).  Overall, the region has witnessed a 30% increase in population from 1990 to 2005.  What this means for individual counties is often a strain on resources and infra-structure.  The nine counties in this region reflect remarkably different developmental paths:  transitions from old tobacco and agricultural economies, to manufacturing based economies to the new remarkable boom of the North Carolina Gold Coast.  Manufacturing has changed in this region from a traditional textile apparel industry, which has all but vanished, to meat processing plants which tend to favor Latino labor, to higher technology pharmaceutical production and research (Hossfeld, et al. 2004). The Gold Coast has witnessed a dramatic increase in lower-end service jobs that have not necessarily translated into living wages.  The table below describes the growth for individual counties from 1990 to 2000 to 2005.  Overall, the region reflects an older population, with the median age of 36.  Onslow County, which houses Camp LeJeune Air Force Base in Jacksonville, has the youngest median age of 25.  Brunswick County has the oldest median age, 42, which reflects the growing influx of retirees to the county.

    The population in the region is pre-dominantly white, 66%.  Southeastern North Carolina is the most ethnically diverse region in North Carolina and in Rural America and with more Native Americans than any region east of the Mississippi River; it is the home of the Lumbee, the largest tribe in the Eastern U.S., and the Waccamaw- Siouan. In addition, there is a significant, poor, African American population comprising 24% of the 6-county population, of which over 30% are in poverty (US Census Bureau 2007).  It is important to note that the Native American population in Southeastern North Carolina is 8%, while it is only 1% at both the state and national level.  While Native American concerns at the state level may seem insignificant, they are an important concern Down East.

Growing Latino Population

    The Latino population in the state has essentially quadrupled since 1990.  Indeed, no state in the nation experienced a larger increase in Latino population from 1990 to 2000 than what North Carolina experienced (Popke, Torres, Power 2005). Once a feature of the interior of the state, the Southeast now faces the challenges of an immigrant population that is more likely to settle and stay, much more so than its transient, "revolving-door" nature of ten years ago.  In both Duplin and Sampson counties, for example, the Latino population is well over 14%.  Many of the rural Southeastern counties feel overwhelmed with the presence of a new ethnic group pressures on social services providers, on schools, on jobs, on housing particularly in rural counties which have felt the pain of economic restructuring of their manufacturing base.  Tensions run high and new social policy and solutions are needed as Latinos arrive, attempt to assimilate and integrate into Southeastern North Carolina neighborhoods and communities.  It is a double-edged sword, however. 

     Research on the dependence on Latino labor in the blueberry industry of Pender county, the meat processing plants in Sampson and Duplin counties and landscaping industries of Brunswick and New Hanover find that employers' consistently describe their desire for Latino labor over local labor (Hossfeld, Leiter, Tomaskovic-Devey 2004).  Yet in these same rural counties, many tensions arise as both newly-arrived Latinos and long-standing residents strive to make ends meet.  In Bladen, Sampson, Columbus and Duplin counties, where over 75% of residents were born in North Carolina, nativist sentiments often erupt when the economic and social landscapes feel threatened. 

    In reality, the region is being transformed by the influx of Latinos.  Tiendas abound, Latino festivals are common the landscape of the rural Southeast looks and feels remarkably different from ten years ago; truly the economic, social and cultural landscape has changed.  Recent research points to the boost Latinos bring to the North Carolina economy, approximately $756 million in taxes (Kasarda and Johnson 2005).  Yet the costs of this new population in terms of social services, unemployment, and illegal immigration are just a few of the concerns we must address.  How this impacts rural communities in Southeastern North Carolina is being felt today.  How we respond to this challenge is of critical importance.

Persistent Poverty Down East

    Poverty is not new to Southeastern North Carolina.  The transformation of North Carolina from its humble origins to a metropolitan state, characterized largely by the growth of Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point, has simply not occurred in the Southeast, save for New Hanover County.  The rural, small town South captures much of what South-eastern North Carolina has traditionally been, and is, today.  Enduring, persistent poverty portrays many of the counties in Eastern North Carolina.  Indeed four adjacent counties in the East are designated as persistent poverty county by the USDA-ERS; Hoke, Robeson, Columbus and Bladen (USDA-ERS 2005).  These counties have experienced significant manufacturing job loss, and given their close proximity, it has been difficult for residents to find employment in neighboring counties a traditional strategy in coping with job displacement.  Robeson County has remained in the top five poorest counties in the nation (for counties 65,000 and over) since 2005 and with the release of new Census data in August 2008 it is ranked fourth highest in the nation for counties its size (US Census Bureau 2008).

   The average percent in poverty for the nine-county region is 18%. For both the State of North Carolina and the US, the poverty rate is around 13%.  If we examine poverty by racial categories, we find a much more disturbing story.  Black and Latino poverty is twice that of White poverty in Brunswick, Pender and Onslow counties.  Black and Latino poverty is approximately 2.5 times higher than White poverty in Bladen, Duplin, Sampson and Columbus counties.  In New Hanover County, Black poverty is almost 3 times higher than White poverty.  For the Southeastern eight-county region as a whole, poverty is 2.3 times greater for Blacks than for Whites.  In the US as in North Carolina, certain categories of people are at greater risk of being in poverty than others:  children, non-whites, and women.  These categories of people are disproportionately represented in the grouping of "officially poor." 

Child Poverty

    Children are at the greatest risk of being poor anywhere in the United States.  This holds true for the eight counties in our region.  Twenty-five percent of children under18 in the region live in poverty.  The consequences of child poverty are far-reaching and clearly an area where serious policy deliberation must occur.  Important to note is that many children live in families of the working poor, as well as the 'officially poor.'  According to the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, Eastern North Carolina had 37% of all North Carolina Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) claims in the state in 2002.  The EITC is designed for families who work but generally earn less than 200% of the federal poverty level (Quinterno 2006). In Robeson County alone, 47% of children under age 18 live in poverty (US Census Bureau 2005).  Racial differences in child poverty are significant, as well.  If we examine the differences between white and black child poverty, we see an even more troubling story.  The mean child poverty rate for the region for White children is 13%, for Black children 35%; that is, Black children in Southeastern North Carolina are over 2 ½ times more likely to be poor than White children.  In specific counties the story is even more alarming:  In New Hanover County, Black children are five times more likely than White children to be in poverty; 4 times more likely in Bladen County; 3 times more likely in Sampson and Columbus; and 2 times more likely in Brunswick, Pender, Duplin and Onslow Counties.  If relationships are created along class lines, as social scientists have long argued, then the ramifications of these remarkable discrepancies cannot bode well for future generations of children in terms of securing networks, and achieving social and cultural capital that in-crease one's life changes and enhanced quality-of-life.

Feminization of Poverty

    If we look at the gender of the house-holder, we find that in families with female heads of households, 33% in the region are in poverty.  This is called the feminization of poverty, a trend in the US whereby most poor families are headed by females.  Lower salaries, lack of affordable housing and increased child care costs, are a few of the problems which exacerbate the already difficult situation single-women heads of house-holds face in raising their families.

Per Capita Income as a Measure of Economic Well-Being

    A traditional measure of quality-of-life has long been the per capita income of a nation, state or county.  Increasingly, this has given way to market-based gains and losses as indicators of well-being.  Attention to per capita income still remains extremely important in under-standing community well-being and quality-of-life.  Per capita income measures total person income divided by total population.  Therefore, the 2 month old and the 98 year old are included in this measure not just the economically active.

    The per capita income average for the Southeast region is $16,793, significantly lower than the state's average of $20,307.  According to the North Carolina Rural Center, per capita income for North Carolina rural counties (of which there are 85) is $17,579 compared with $23,162 for North Carolina urban counties (North Carolina Rural Center 2005).  The difference in per capita income by race is significant and noteworthy.  If we examine just the white/black differences, we see a troubling pattern emerge.  As the table above illustrates, White per capita income for the region is $19,124, over 1 ½ times that of Black per capita income which, for the region is $11,793.  This translates into a $7,330 gap between white and black incomes.  Ex-pressed another way, blacks earn 62% of white's income in the region.  In Brunswick, Pender, Bladen, Onslow and Sampson, White per capita income is over 1 ½ times more than Black per capita income; in Columbus and New Hanover it is almost twice as great.

Mean Household Income

The Mean Household Income for the eight-county region is $42,270, much lower than the average for the state of North Carolina which is $51,225.  If we examine differences by race, within the region, we see troubling patterns emerge.  White mean household income is significantly higher than all other categories of income and African American mean household incomes are lowest in the eight-county region.  Mean household incomes are $11,304 less.  African Americans in the region early 68% of White household incomes; Latinos earn 73% of White mean household incomes; and Native Americans earn 75% of White mean household incomes. 

Home Ownership and Affordable Housing

    One of the best indicators of wealth for most Americans is home ownership; indeed for most Americans home owner-ship comprises 60% of a family's wealth (Low 2005). While home ownership rates have increased in North Carolina (69% in 2005) the gap between housing costs and wages has also grown (North Carolina Housing Finance Agency 2006).  Before examining affordable housing criteria and issues, let us first examine home-ownership rates in the Southeast region.  Home ownership rates in the eight-county region are relatively high (74%) as compared to the state, however if we exclude in this measure mobile homes, we find a much different picture.  When excluding mobile homes, the regional landscape is much bleaker, given that the wealth building accumulated in owning mobile homes versus traditional homes is significantly greater.  If we add race to this variable, we find a common pattern in wealth accumulation:  that White have not only higher in-comes, but greater wealth accumulation in terms of home ownership.  There are two important measures to differentiate when examining home-ownership.  Homeownership rates include all types of housing, from cottages to modular homes to mansions.  More telling in terms of measuring family wealth is the measure Homeownership Excluding Mobile Homes.  This is an important distinction given that mobile homes provide less equity for families and consequently less wealth.  According to the Housing Finance Agency in Raleigh, affordable housing is defined as when a homeowner pays no more than 30% of income for monthly mortgage payments, insurance, taxes and utilities; for a renter, no more than 30% of income for rent and utilities (North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, 2006).  In their 2006 report, the Housing Finance Agency finds that no North Carolinian working at minimum wage can afford an efficiency apartment in any county at the Fair Market Rent (FMR) described above.  For low income families (families early less than 80% of median family income for the area) in the region, finding affordable housing is a tremendous problem.  For the region, 49% of low income house-holds pay more than 30% of their income on housing.  Furthermore, 93% of low income households in the region find housing costs a problem (North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, 2006).

Educational Attainment

     About 15% of the region's population 25 and older holds a bachelor's degree or higher.  Of the eight counties, New Hanover has the highest percentage of population with BA degree or higher at 31%, much higher than the state average of 23%.  Columbus, Duplin, Bladen and Sampson have the lowest, around 10-11%.  Rural North Carolina workers often have not completed their high school degree, and fewer still have associate or bachelor degree.  Many of these workers do not have a high school diploma and are faced with returning to school and then finding training for new skills.   The table below provides data on the population over 25 without high school diplomas in each county in the region. 

How Do We Respond?

    In a region with remarkable growth and a growing affluent coastline, we find that the enduring problems which have characterized rural North Carolina for generations have simply not gone away.  High pockets of rural poverty, low educational attainment and a racial divide in income and access to resources linger and aggravate embedded social and economic problems Down East.   One example of a community response to rural poverty has been the development of a regional food system.  The Southeastern North Carolina Regional Food System Program (SENCFS) formed in 2007 to address the local food system problems in its community. Community stakeholders currently engaged in food production and distribution as well as community members working for social justice met monthly to develop an integrated food system that keeps food dollars within the region as a means of economic development for the region.  The Southeastern North Carolina Food Systems (SENCFS) Project is a partnership of public and private institutions and agencies among six counties along and adjoining the I-74 corridor east of I-95. The SENCFS includes both rural and urban counties in order to maximize market opportunities and profits from the sales of local farm products for both local and regional markets.   Its priorities include:

  1. strengthening local economies in economically distressed counties and encouraging economic development; and 
  2. implementing agricultural and food system development strategies focused on job creation, market expansion, and alternative crop production; and 
  3. increase access to affordable food and encourage the consumption of healthy foods both in public institutions and at home. 
There is extensive farming in the rural counties but farming continues to serve the export economy rather than local food needs. With rising poverty and the massive loss of manufacturing and agricultural jobs, the entire rural economy of Southeastern North Carolina is in need of reconstruction. The establishment of local and regional food systems is a key component in developing vibrant and sustainable local and regional economies.   The major project goals are to: 
  1. expand the local and regional institutional buying and direct marketing of local farm products in rural and urban counties along the I-74 corridor in Southeastern NC; 
  2. increase the local production, marketing, and profit of local farm products in rural and urban counties in Southeastern N.C.; 
  3. sustain and expand employment and income on limited resource farms; 
  4. link rural farmers to rural and urban markets and consumers through new infrastructures and networks created through the SENCFS; 
  5. expand farm and food-related jobs through the expansion of businesses that produce, distribute, market, and sell farm products in Southeastern NC; 
  6. increase the opportunity and capacity of limited resource farmers to meet the demand for local farm products in the expanded local and regional markets: (7) provide fresher, healthier, and safer farm products for local and regional consumption, increasing the biodiversity of farm production and consumer health and safety; and 
  7. keep a greater percentage of the food dollar within Southeastern NC and increase local and regional wealth through the multiplier effect of expanded markets, sales, and profits.
    The SNCFS Project focuses on increasing the sales of farm products among limited resource farmers in six counties in Southeastern N.C. through multiple strategies that include: 
  1. creating comprehensive institutional buying systems on the county and regional levels; 
  2. expanding direct farm to market sales; and 
  3. educating, training, supporting, and coaching limited resource farmers in growing alternative and niche crops through markets established through the project; and 
  4. developing new systems of mutual assistance among farmers, such as cooperative labor and equipment pools, and with consumers, such as community supported agriculture systems (CSA's), that provide additional support and incentives for local and regional buying. 
    Research suggests that SENCFS will significantly improve the economic well-being of the participating counties and the region as a whole over the next five years.  The table below shows the estimated annual economic impact of 100 agricultural jobs created in a six-county region in Southeastern North Carolina (Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover, Pender, and Robeson) over the next five years. All dollar figures are in early 2007. (These impacts were estimated using an IMPLAN© model developed for the six-county region developed by Dr. William Hall, Senior Economist, UNCW.)
Impact Measure
Annual Impact
Wages and Salaries^
Self-Employment Income^^
Divend, Interest, and Rental Income+
County Property Tax Collections++
*Output is a measure of total economic activity in the six-county region, analogous to the Gross Domestic Product for the nation.  The impact shown in the table is the contribution that the jobs will make to total economic activity in the region.
**The sum of full-time and part-time employment.
^Wages and salaries paid to employees
^^Income payments made to self-employed individuals
+Income payments made to individuals owning stock, serving as creditors, and renting property
++Property tax payments made to counties (excluding any municipal property tax payments).

    Prior research in Southeastern North Carolina identified the growth sectors of health and education; the challenged sectors of agriculture/forestry and manufacturing; and the emerging sectors of entrepreneurship/small business and recreation/tourism (Center of Concern 2005).  Food systems research and social action has the potential to combine all six sectors in an effort to energize the region's lagging economy.  The majority of state and federal programs that provide incentives and investments in businesses are provided to large businesses (over 100 employees) that are recruited to urban areas instead of rural areas.  Regional food systems may be an avenue to address these deficiencies in state and federal policy. While this is but one of many economic development projects that are needed in our region, it provides an avenue towards economic recovery in our region. 

Moving Forward

    As we move forward in Southeastern North Carolina, our policy deliberations must focus on these most fundamental problems to ensure comprehensive economic development throughout the region.  There has been a significant absence of well-organized state and national coalitions of rural communities and organizations that will leverage new rural policy that promotes and protects rural interests. We must recognize and tackle the crippling power of enduring poverty and inequality Down East so that we may move into the new millennium with the verve and voracity exemplified in other parts of North Carolina. 


Hossfeld, L., Legerton, M., Kuester, G. 2004.  "The Socio-economic impact of Job Loss in Robeson County North Carolina 1993-2003." Sociation Today. Volume 2(2).

Hossfeld, L., Leiter, J., Tomaskovic-Devey, D. 2001.  "We Like Latino Labor: North Carolina Employers Look at Latino Labor,"  Paper presented Southern  Sociological Society Annual Meetings, Atlanta, 2001.

United State Census Bureau 2005, 2006, Poverty Data Sets.

United States Census Bureau, 2008, American Community Survey Results. www/releases/ archives/news_conferences/012515.html

Kasarda, J.  and Johnson, J. 2005.  "The Economic Impact of the Hispanic Population on the State of North Carolina," University of North Carolina Chapel Hill publication.

Low, S. 2005. Main Street Economist, September. MSE_0905_text.pdf

North Carolina Department of Commerce, 2008, County Tier Designations, LocateYourBusiness/WhyNC/Incentives/ CountyTierDesignations/

North Carolina Housing Finance Agency 2006.

Quinterno, J. 2006.  "North Carolina's Unfinished Transformation," North Carolina Tax and Budget Center Publication.

North Carolina Rural Center 2005.

Popke, J. Torres, R.  and Power.  2005.  "A State Transformed:  Latino Immigration to North Carolina," East Carolina University publication.

US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services 2005. Definition of persistent poverty. maps/Poverty.htm

 Return to Sociation Today Fall/Winter 2009 

©2009 by the North Carolina Sociological Association