ZIP Code 35203 covers just over two square miles of the floor of Jones Valley. It includes the area around 20th Street and Morris Avenue, where the first commercial structures in the new city of Birmingham rose nearly a century-and-a-half ago. It runs as far south as Powell Avenue at Railroad Park, as far north as Interstate 20/59 at 31st Street North, as far east as 32nd Street North at Messer-Airport Highway and as far west as 5th Street and 1st Avenue North.
It encompasses Birmingham’s central business district, taking in the headquarters of numerous local corporations, leading legal and accounting practices and major nonprofits. It is home to Birmingham City Hall, the Jefferson County Courthouse, the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Birmingham Public Library and the Linn-Henley Research Library, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, McWane Science Center, the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, the historic Alabama and Lyric Theatres, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and one of the nation’s top entrepreneurial incubators, Innovation Depot.
In a very real sense, 35203 is the epicenter of all that is, or is perceived to be, going right with Birmingham at this seemingly propitious time in the city’s history. The downtown ZIP code bisects the aforementioned Railroad Park, the most visible symbol of Birmingham’s current aspirations to civic greatness. It includes the growing Loft District, an impressively expanding roster of new and established restaurants, pubs, boutiques and a host of other businesses and concerns — including the offices of Weld for Birmingham — contributing to the sense of momentum that is fueling the undeniable reanimation of a long-moribund downtown area.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, median household income in 35203 has grown by nearly 140 percent since 2000, a rate approaching five times the national average over the same period. Meanwhile, the median home value in 35203 has increased by well over 500 percent, more than 10 times the national average.
There is, however, another side to the coin of 35203’s growing prosperity. Outside the glitter of things new and exciting, just beneath the veneer of progress both real and perceived, is a sobering and inescapable reality. That reality is that 35203 is the poorest ZIP code in the city of Birmingham, and the second poorest in all of Alabama, itself among the poorest states in the Union.
The poverty rate in 35203 is a staggering 47.1 percent, meaning that nearly one of every two residents in the ZIP code lives below poverty level. The high school graduation rate in 35203 is 14 percent lower than in Birmingham as a whole. And the real story behind the ZIP code’s impressive rise in income is that, huge increase and all, the current median household income in 35203 is just $18,169 — a figure that is less than 60 percent of that for the city as a whole, and barely over one-third of the national average of $53,046.
Given the dichotomies it embodies — the sometimes jarring juxtaposition of prosperity and poverty; the gap between Birmingham’s aspirations and the multitude of obstacles the city faces in realizing them fully; the shadowy gray area between hope and despair; the daunting distance that Birmingham has yet to travel if it is to be a place of true equality and justice for all — ZIP code 35203 might be just as symbolic as Railroad Park of where Birmingham is at this moment in time, and of the community’s several possible futures. Certainly, the greatest challenge, the stumbling block most squarely and obstinately in Birmingham’s path of progress, is poverty itself.
Behind the curve
“We need to celebrate the fact that Birmingham is doing better,” Kristina Scott says of the city’s current, largely unprecedented, spate of forward movement. “But we can do that and still be honest about the obstacles we have, and serious about creating more opportunities for improvements that are meaningful in the lives of more people, particularly the appalling number of poor people in our community. We’ve all heard the statement [attributed to Jesus] that the poor will always be with us. But too many folks think that’s a commandment rather than an observation.”
Scott is executive director of Alabama Possible, a Birmingham-based nonprofit that works with institutions of higher learning and faith-based organizations to reduce systemic poverty and its economic and social impacts. She mentions education, income levels, transportation and healthcare as areas where Alabama — and Birmingham — continue to fall short, and points out that the nexus between those and other issues that can only be addressed through concentration of time and resources and the application of political muscle.
“Poverty is umbrella over all of them,” Scott says. “We’re talking not only about the sheer number of people who lack adequate resources to meet their basic needs, but also about trying to improve their ability to pursue economic opportunities that can lift them out of poverty.”
Leaders of other local organizations that deal directly with poverty and related issues agree with Scott’s general assessment. Scott Douglas, the executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, says that the number of historical factors that have contributed to the prevalence and perpetuation of poverty in Birmingham — the decline of labor unions and the loss of the coal mine and steel mill jobs that provided generations of working families with a pathway to the middle class; Alabama’s state constitution, which Douglas says was “designed to keep poor people poor;” the lack of concentrated efforts by state and local governments to alleviate poverty — make it “extremely difficult” to get at the root of the problem.
“Poverty is not one thing,” Douglas declares. “It is a multitude of things that conspire to keep people poor. Some of those are just a continuation of issues that Alabama in general, and Birmingham in particular, have been unable or unwilling to meet head-on. History has shown us that we are willing to help poor people deal with the circumstances of being poor — in other words, we will be charitable. But we will not do the things that are necessary to address the issues of social and economic inequity that have been our undoing. If you want evidence of that in the present, you don’t have to look any further than the fate of Cooper Green Hospital, which has left the poor of Birmingham and Jefferson County with no health system to serve them.
“As a community, we just put out fires,” Douglas concludes, lamenting that while Birmingham can be remarkable at responding to the material needs of the poor, particularly during local disasters or other instances of extreme need, “we’re doing nothing to lift people up.”
J.W. Carpenter is the executive director of the Birmingham Education Foundation, a nonprofit that works with the Birmingham City Schools — of which roughly two in every five students live in poverty, and as much as 90 percent of the student population is eligible for the free and reduced-cost lunch program — to promote student achievement, parental involvement, school leadership development and engagement with the community. Prior to taking over the BEF in September 2013, Carpenter spent three years as the founding director of the Teach for America program in Alabama, working to supplement and improve the quality of instruction in both urban and rural school systems. The primary obstacle, he says, is clear.
“There isn’t a day I show up for work when the issue of poverty isn’t front and center,” says Carpenter. “I look at the challenges that students and their families face every day, just to have the basic necessities for living. I see teachers who aren’t provided with the resources to do their job, and who reach into their own pockets to make up that shortfall. I meet a lot of people who cut across all lines of diversity who understand that poverty does not have to be an absolute barrier to education.
“I also encounter those who don’t understand, or do not care, about those things, and who make assumptions about people who are poor,” Carpenter adds. “I think it’s dangerous when we start basing our opinions, our political preferences, and even our public policy on those assumptions.”
Assumptions about the poor — that they don’t want to work, that they are somehow “beating the game” by living on the meager subsistence provided by welfare and other public assistance programs — greatly increases the degree of difficulty involved in effecting systemic change, says Yolanda Sullivan. Interim CEO of the YWCA of Central Alabama and a longtime board member of the organization, Sullivan allows that combating such perceptions is part of her job.
“People who are poor want to do the same things as anybody else,” says Sullivan. “Most of all, they want to take care of their families, to be able to have a realistic hope for a better life. But that’s hard to do when you start out with nothing, and nothing is what you inherited. In our poor state, poverty has been an endless cycle. The sadness of it is, we know all of this, and have known it for a long time. We just have not made dealing with it a priority, and until we do, we’re going to remain behind the curve.”
An open question
This essay — the continuation of what will be a more than yearlong focus on poverty in the pages of Weld — opened with an overview of the poorest ZIP code in Birmingham. But what of the city at large? What is the scope of poverty in Birmingham, the breadth and depth of an issue that ultimately will determine the success or failure of elected officials, business leaders, nonprofit organizations, neighborhood and community groups, and individual citizens in making Birmingham all it can be?
For starters, the poverty rate in the city of Birmingham is 28.9 percent. That makes the aspiring Magic City the eighth poorest among the 100 largest cities in the United States, more in the company of the likes of Detroit, Cleveland, Newark and St. Louis than the kind of “hot” cities whose paths many forward-thinking Birminghamians would prefer to follow — Austin, Charlotte, Nashville, and Jacksonville, for example.
Unfortunately, the deeper one digs into indicators of intractable poverty — income levels, educational attainment, social characteristics and demographic data, governmental policy at the state and local levels, public health issues — the deeper the hole in which one finds Birmingham. That the city is progressing is apparent, but the question of whether Birmingham can — or will — not only dig itself out, but also begin to reverse the appalling numbers that have relegated other cities to seemingly permanent decline remains very much open.
The goal of understanding
Over the next several months, Weld will take an in-depth look at poverty in Birmingham with a series of articles and features looking at the scope of the problem — and exploring possible solutions, both ongoing and potential. Weld’s ongoing work on this series is being underwritten by Alabama Power Company, which is providing financial and other resources to support the research and writing of what we believe ultimately will be a groundbreaking examination of the most compelling, overarching challenge facing Birmingham in the immediate future — work that not only provides information and promotes broad understanding of issues related to poverty, but also helps to engage our readers, and the public at large, in addressing those issues with maximum effectiveness.
The core of Weld’s poverty series will be organized around five key areas of focus: Education, Employment, Public Health, Transportation and Race. We will look at the geography of poverty in Jefferson County — not just the city of Birmingham, which is far from being the county’s poorest municipality — at the organizations that provide services to the poor, and at models for dealing with poverty-related issues that are working, either locally or in other communities around the country. Most importantly of all, we will tell the stories of individuals and families who grapple with the daily impacts of poverty in their own lives — and of those who have managed to beat the odds and escape the killing grip of privation.
It has been said that understanding is the first and most critical step of transformation. As Birmingham continues the process of redefining itself, of taking full control of its own destiny, it is our hope that this series can play a decisive role in making the transformation of our city complete and all-inclusive.