The other two North Carolinas

By: - December 26, 2004 2:54 pm

One of the most often quoted phrases from Senator John Edwards’ bid for the presidency this past year was his talk of “two Americas,” the wealthy, successful part of the nation and the rest of us, struggling to find health care, send a kid to college, or even make ends meet.

Governor Mike Easley used the same thought four years ago in his inauguration speech, describing “two North Carolinas,” the rich and poor, the urban and rural, the prosperous and poor.
At the end of 2004 the thought is worth revisiting with a slightly different twist. The difference in this case isn’t between the rich and poor, it is between the starkly conflicting attitudes toward the poor, the diametrically opposed perspectives on the uninsured, the opposite reactions to the struggles of the mentally ill.

The differences are just as stark as the ones laid out by Edwards and Easley, but ultimately far more important in determining what kind of state North Carolina will be.

Is poverty a choice or an unfortunate result of circumstance and barriers that we can remove or provide help to overcome? Is the problem with poverty the people in it, or the lack of support we provide for people to lift themselves out of it? Do people want to be poor or do they want to improve their lives?

Is it better for a all of us to pay a few more dollars a week in taxes so we can collectively make investments in building affordable housing, stopping kids from dropping out of school, helping addicts stay sober and out of jail?

Are taxes that we pay to help people afford to get treatment for their mental illness investments in our communities, or money stolen from us by an evil government that puts a gun to our head?

That is what it has come to. That is the decision facing all of us, especially our policymakers, at the end of 2004. The questions used to be rhetorical. The discussion was how we could best reduce the drop out rate or help a single mother afford day care so she could get a job.

That is the fundamental shift in our policy debate, that we are now battling over helping people or blaming them.

If you don’t believe it, here are two perspectives that might convince you. The first one comes from an email responding to a Fitzsimon File written just before Thanksgiving, which asked people to remember the Latino farm workers who picked the sweet potatoes on our tables, and asked policy makers to respect those workers and pass legislation to help them.

One Fitzsimon File reader responded this way.

“I just read your article on immigrants. You must not go to Wal-Mart. I see lots of them with their shopping carts full of food that I cannot afford. also failed to tell about those that come here 81/2 months pregnant, have the baby and the tax payers are the ones that have to foot the bill…you say they work jobs that no one else wants, that is high untrue as well… My child’s teacher has to spend extra time on a child that can not speak English and my child has to basically has to get what the teacher tells them the first time because she has to take extra time with the child who speaks little or no English. Who fault is it that that child does not speak English, not my child, but he is the one losing out. Where you born here in the US? You are making your own look like butts.”

That was written by someone who works for a county social services department, an agency designed to help people who are poor, not to blame them. But sadly, anger and blame seem to scream from every phrase.

Then there is this from someone else’s writing.

“In America, we shouldn’t have people sleeping in parks and shelters. It’s not right. I think everybody should have a home. Some place to go late at night with now curfew, shelter from the rain….its not safe for kids to be out in the streets….People living in the streets have to eat food off the ground.

How many more people have to die before we step up and do something about this. I think our government should try to keep families off the street, especially if they have kids…I hope after reading this you will help me fight to get more people homes.”

That was written by a 12-year-old girl living in a Salvation Army shelter with her mother. Two people, both emotional, both desperate, both struggling in their own ways with their daily lives, both needing our help. But two people with very different attitudes about North Carolina.

Which one will we choose to guide our decisions next year?

Happy holidays.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066