Fitzsimon File : Chaos or Community

By: - January 17, 2005 7:02 pm

This was quite a weekend in North Carolina with the inauguration of Governor Mike Easley and the annual tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Monday’s holiday set aside to honor him.

Most of the celebrations about King’s life focus on civil rights and his “I Have a Dream Speech.” And it’s true that North Carolina still has a long ways to go before skin color has no bearing on opportunity. Segregation and discrimination based on race are no longer legal, but they still plague our society every day, in the bank loan departments, the rental offices, the hiring committees and the ballot box.

When King was killed, he was organizing sanitation workers in Memphis. He had been speaking out against the Vietnam War and was in the midst of his Poor People’s Campaign.

Much of his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, is just as relevant for North Carolina today as it was when it was published in 1967.

King said the programs to help the poor were flawed because they attacked poverty one piece at a time, housing, education, family counseling, etc.

“The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development, King wrote. “Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy.”

“Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions….At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.”

Sound familiar? Individual programs to help the poor sputtering, with funding slightly increased one year, then cut the next. Programs funded or ignored depending on the changing priorities of lawmakers and governors, while the basic needs of the poor remain the same, regardless of who is in office.

Chaos or Community is a question that state leaders ought to answer today, 38 years after King asked it.

The safety net in North Carolina is tattered with huge holes. Governor Mike Easley said Saturday that the state will be judged by how well it treats the poor and “the priority of every investment must promote our greatest asset, our people.”

Easley is on to something there, but needs to realize that education is not the only place we must invest. Kids from families that are struggling have a harder time in school. And we have an obligation to help not just school-age children, but adults and infants and seniors too.

The first step is to change the debate, to denounce the rabid anti-government folks and their insistence that somehow people choose to be poor. Look at the first part of last paragraph of column written by John Hood on the King Holiday.

“If public-assistance programs can be justified at all in a free society with limited and economical government…”

If they can be justified at all? Apparently that is an open question to Mr. Hood, whether or not we should help the poor. Governor Easley needs to declare that is not an open question, but an obligation, and then fight for programs to prove it.

More people without health care or fewer? People dying of AIDS or getting the medicine they need to live? More teenagers dropping out of school or fewer?

Chaos or Community?

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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