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Poverty persists despite high quality of life in Orange County

Orange County ranked highly in several health and quality of life categories, but county leaders say this praise doesn't tell the full story.

The 2015 State of the Community report, released in August by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, found Orange County to rank among the top counties in social and economic factors. 

Stacy Shelp, spokesperson for the Orange County Health Department, said the report can give a false sense of security if it is not looked at holistically.

“Some of the data is outdated, and this can lead to a false sense of security in the county,” Shelp said. “It is also important to know there are significant pockets of poverty within the county.”

Shelp said Orange County has historically ranked at the top of lists for community rankings such as length of life, health behaviors, clinical care and social and economic factors, as well as quality of life and physical environment.

There are a variety of factors that may not seem health related but are, she said. 

“Both education and socioeconomic status can be health indicators,” she said. “They factor into the accessibility to healthcare and access to resources.”

Pockets of poverty are a reflection of significant gaps in services and resources within the county, Shelp said.

Ellen Turner, a UNC junior, has lived in Orange County her whole life. She said she is able to see the disparities in well-being between social classes.

“I had a pretty great life growing up here, but I could see it all depends on your socioeconomic status,” Turner said.

Turner said the difference is that the disparity is harder to notice inside the university bubble.

“I think Chapel Hill glosses over issues in the greater community,” she said. “We’re a liberal college town, so I feel like we just look at that angle, even when there are so many low-income households in the area.”

Turner also said gentrification is a large contributor to this point of view and community outlook.

“Think about communities like Hargraves and Rogers Road,” she said. “Gentrification is a huge problem here and in Carrboro, and it’s a problem no one pays attention to because it doesn’t hurt the statistic.”

Shelp said the report should be used to look at where services and accessibility can be strengthened.

“We can look beyond the numbers to improve circumstances for the disadvantaged and continue to support those services which are already accessible,” she said.

While there are gaps, she said the county still has many resources in healthcare, exercise and healthy foods. Shelp said the report highlights those topics.

“Orange County is a treasure trove of resources,” Shelp said. “We just need to continue working with partners around the county to fill gaps and strengthen resources already in place.”

Aaron Nelson, president and CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, said the report ranks the quality of living in Orange County and neighboring counties, such as Chatham County and Hyde County. 

“The report is made up of 150 data points about living in and around Orange County,” Nelson said. “It takes four to six weeks to create, all found from publicly available sources that we then analyze.”

Nelson said this is the eighth state of the community report from the chamber, and takes into account social, health and economic indicators. He said this information is important to the community because he believes good data makes good choices.

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“Our philosophy is, ‘once you know, you can’t un-know,’” he said.

Nelson said while the report does rank Orange County and its communities highly, some of the data points can be relative.

“We have an incredibly high quality of life — low poverty, great education and very attractive environmental outlooks,” he said. “But we also have a high cost of living.”


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