Is Northwest Arkansas Really the Land of the Plenty?
A new study from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that Benton County’s per capita personal income in 2014 was 149.3% of the national average. Only seven other counties in a 12-state southeast U.S. region had a higher percentage.
These statistics share only part of the story of life in our area. The idealized perception of life in Northwest Arkansas as a land of plenty plagues the work that we do here at the Samaritan Community Center. Volunteers and visitors to our centers, unfamiliar with the conflicting statistics on homelessness, poverty, and childhood hunger in our schools can’t seem to fathom how our towns, with some of the biggest businesses in the world, are also inhabited by so many “have-nots.”
While Mercedes, Acura, BMW, and Alfa Rameo dealerships dot our landscape, and there are many who benefit from the abundance that displays itself in various ways, there are many more middle and low-income people working hard behind the scenes keeping our way of life humming along. The people who work in our chicken factories, check us out at the big box stores, and prepare our Ruth’s Chris Steaks have come to this area because of the promise of a better life. They’ve moved here from poorer regions of the state, nation, and world – all hoping for a chance to hop on the corporate ladder, even at the lowest rungs and pull themselves skyward.
Many of our clients at both centers have not been able to make the climb. They’ve had diversions along the way, or not had the skill-set or social scaffolding to support their northward ascent. That’s where the hidden statistics of homelessness within our schools is a critical counter point to the promise of the 149.3%. Homelessness in our area is a huge issue but it is hidden behind motel walls, on couches and in backyard tents. A recent homeless census by the University of Arkansas finds homelessness in our area is on the rise. The census shows 54% of those who are homeless are children under 18. The survey also shows Bentonville and Fayetteville have the largest K-12 homeless population in the state.
While many areas that feature such extremes tend to build walls to protect each sector from one another, our community faces these realities head-on in an attempt to make a better life for all those who live in NWA. The companies and employees of our community regularly donate their time, talent, and treasure to combat poverty in our area, and spend personal and professional time working with nonprofits like ours.
The biggest challenge we face is not in finding those with need or those who want to help, but educating those who don’t know or don’t want to know how many people in this region are hurting, hungry, or in need. Luckily, often when we welcome volunteers to serve for one day we see them become those who serve for life. Northwest Arkansas may be one of the most financially rich areas of the southeast but it is also one of the most generous. I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to work with so many people dedicated to rising up those less well-off than themselves. This will eventually prove fruitful in helping to improve the standard of living for all who call Northwest Arkansas home, whether they have one now or not.