'Tell stories' to improve the welfare of Alamance residents

Six panelists met with members of the Alamance County community Thursday night in a public forum where ideas were shared to better portray the realities of life for those who receive public assistance.

Elon University Professor Tom Mould and Nikki Ratliff, program services director with the Burlington Housing Authority (photo courtesy of Steven Mantilla/Times-News)
By Brittany Barker ‘19

Elon University scholars and leading nonprofit experts in the Alamance County community came together Thursday night to share ideas for changing the tone of public dialogue about government assistance and its recipients.

The second “Community Connections” forum of the academic year took place Jan. 14 in the Paramount Theatre in downtown Burlington where approximately 100 people asked questions of community leaders, government officials and professors who have studied the perceptions of welfare in Alamance County.

The six panelists were:

  • Tracy Salisbury, executive director, Open Door Clinic
  • Nikki Ratliff, program services director, Burlington Housing Authority
  • Michelle Poole, economic support program manager, Department of Social Services
  • Tom Mould, professor of anthropology and folklore, Elon University
  • April Durr, director of community impact, United Way
  • Kim Crawford, executive director, Allied Churches of Alamance County

Welfare has developed a negative connotation and has been know to be associated with the stereotype of a lazy, incapable human being, panelists said. Yet welfare is not for lazy people.

“We talk about welfare in society as if it is a bad thing,” said Mould, who directed a “Voices of Welfare” project through Elon University’s Program for Ethnographic Research & Community Studies. “On the other hand, we care about the welfare of our children, the welfare of society. Welfare in itself needs to be discussed in a positive light.”

Everyone deserves to have a roof over their heads, panelists said, but not nearly enough people have one because of the high poverty rates both locally and nationally.

“Allied Churches provides a roof for many of the homeless every day,” Crawford said. “Every day, over 2,000 people who can’t afford groceries come to the Allied Churches for food. No one can afford to live off of minimum wage because the price to rent a single room apartment is appalling.”

Audience members were adamant about the need to change the tone of conversation about welfare, and some of the younger members wanted to know what is being done in their community to combat stereotypes of recipients.

“If the money that was put towards the new Star Wars movie had been put towards the poor, there would be no poverty,” Crawford said. “We can’t expect the poor to get out of their state if we do not give them the care that we give as a society to a movie.”

Now in their third year, “Community Connections” forums take on a lively format and consist in large part of a well-informed panel having an open conversation with audience members. Co-sponsored by Elon University and the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the series features as many as four events each year.

​The goal of the forums is to create thoughtful dialog with members of the university community as well as those who in live in Alamance County and the surrounding area. Previous forums have explored issues surrounding on race relations, domestic violence, hunger, downtown revitalization, health care, gun violence and education.

Assistant Professor Jason Husser, Elon University’s faculty fellow for civic engagement, moderated the event.

“The ‘Community Connections’ forum was only an hour long, but managed to address the issues and possible solutions to a very controversial problem in today’s world,” Husser said.