North Carolina’s greatest scandal continues

By: - October 10, 2017 5:00 am

Photo: NC Poverty Research Fund

Photo: NC Poverty Research Fund

UNC center’s latest report on poverty provides powerful reminder of the communities and individuals being left behind

When you consider the matter for a moment, it’s really not all that surprising that conservative politicians in Raleigh have been so hell-bent for so long to silence Professor Gene Nichol and the colleagues and students with whom he works at UNC Law School. There are, of course, numerous critics of the reactionary policies that state leaders have been advancing for most of the past decade—many of them employed in state-funded universities—but when it comes to Nichol and his team, there are a couple of factors that have to drive the powers-that-be absolutely crazy.

Nichol’s voice itself is one. Few other North Carolinians this side of Rev. William Barber are as powerful, passionate and pointed in, as the old saying goes, “speaking truth to power.” If you have any doubts about this, you must have somehow missed Nichol’s regular essays that dramatically enliven the opinion pages of Raleigh’s News & Observer. Click here and here to check out a couple of recent examples.

Nichol is also an old-fashioned, mince-no-words orator in person and his regular public takedowns of right-wing dishonesty and avarice must surely grate on the fragile egos of the politicians and plutocrats he so effectively skewers. Click here for a recent video example.

Even more important than Nichol’s formidable voice and the way he’s willing to use it, however, is the substance of the message he and his team deliver. Simply put, what the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund (formerly known as the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity) does over and over is to shine a powerful and not easily avoided spotlight on North Carolina’s greatest and still most woefully under-addressed scandal: its widespread, grinding and debilitating poverty.

In a society that likes to think of and bill itself as “middle class,” this is hard stuff to have repeatedly tossed in one’s face. For years now (and especially since the conservative legislative takeover in 2011), politicians have been telling the world that North Carolina is a beacon of “freedom,” “liberty” and “progress” and the home to a “Carolina Comeback.”

Meanwhile, at the same time, here is a publicly-employed educator of young minds and future advocates showing repeatedly and with great precision and eloquence that such claims are mostly nonsense. As Nichol and crew have repeatedly demonstrated, the simple and harsh truth is that North Carolina is a massively and appallingly unequal place; a state in which millions make do on annual incomes that wouldn’t support the wealthy for a week and in which hundreds of thousands of children live on the precipice of real and debilitating hunger and malnutrition.

Add to this the fact that the Poverty Research Fund speaks out so often on behalf of people of color during a fraught time in which the main political powers in the state are almost exclusively older white men and…well, as another old saying goes, “the truth hurts.”

“Mountain poverty”   

Interestingly, the latest iteration in the Poverty Fund’s ongoing series of exposés on the reality of life in 21st Century North Carolina is not centered in either of the two places that many people most commonly associate with poverty: the state’s rural “down east” region (home to the counties with the highest percentage of African-American residents) or the impoverished inner city neighborhoods of its larger cities. In their new report, Nichol and his colleague Heather Hunt direct their gaze toward the western “mountain” county of Wilkes—an overwhelmingly white and rural area that has long elected conservative politicians and that gave Donald Trump a 76.4% margin last November.

“Mountain Poverty and Resilience” is the story of the outsourced, battered and downsized 21st Century U.S. economy and of the people who inhabit withered mobile homes and eke out a living on part-time jobs, Social Security and other forms of meager public assistance.

As Nichol put it in a letter introducing the report:

In it, we depict a county wrenched by devastating economic forces. In one generation, the county experienced a free-fall of sorts. Once a manufacturing powerhouse, and the headquarters of a number of large state and national corporations, it suffered repeated blows throughout the 2000s to which it was ill-equipped to respond. As one local leader told us, ‘it was like a natural disaster, without FEMA coming to the rescue.’ Another was more direct: ‘a lot of folks feel like they’ve been on the losing end for a long time and had the crap kicked out of them.’”

In scores of statistics and data sets and numerous real life interviews, Nichol and Hunt tell the story of a place that experienced the worst of the Great Recession and that has, in many ways, never recovered. This is from the report:

Income and earnings in Wilkes are low, often dramatically so, when compared to statewide measures. Historically, median household income in Wilkes has been lower than in North Carolina. In the last fifteen years, household income fell at a steeper rate in the county, significantly widening the gap….The Pew Charitable Trust’s Stateline initiative reported in 2016 that only one other county in the nation suffered a larger drop in median household income.”

And while, as with most of the rest of the nation, things began to improve near the end of the Obama years, things remain bleak in many respects:

Poverty echoes income. Nearly a quarter of Wilkes residents live below the meager federal poverty threshold. A third of all children, and over half of Hispanic children, are poor. The county’s poverty rate is higher than North Carolina’s for young and old, male and female…. It wasn’t always so. During the 1980s and 1990s, state and county poverty rates converged. In the mid-2000s, Wilkes’ poverty rate began to climb rapidly.  By 2015, the county rate exceeded the state by six percentage points.”

Nichol and Hunt’s interviews with several Wilkes County residents living in or near poverty put an often heartbreaking human face on these and other data. In case after case, locals tell their stories of closed businesses and lost jobs, physical and emotional illnesses, shame and stress, domestic violence, exorbitant electric bills, paltry incomes, lack of employment opportunity and terrible struggles just to stay in out of the weather.

As one woman poignantly put it: “But now I’m so low down I can’t really do for myself.”

Going forward

Contrary to what conservative critics (who regularly brandish the “socialist” label when attacking Nichol and his team) probably would have predicted, the recommendations in the report are extremely modest and practical. Rather than endorsing some kind of grand county-wide overhaul, Nichol and Hunt stick to basic solutions for practical problems that would ease suffering and inject a measure of hope. Four, in particular, stand out.

  • New initiatives to attack the county’s affordable housing crisis, including programs (like weatherization, property tax relief, repair and improvement assistance and loan forgiveness) to help preserve dilapidated homes.
  • Transportation assistance to better connect the county’s dispersed and often isolated population. As the report notes: “Vouchers or discounted tickets would help those who are homeless or on a shoestring budget.”
  • An improved and better coordinated network of human service providers to grapple with what the report characterizes as “the intersection of health, substance abuse, domestic violence and poverty.”
  • New efforts to lift up higher education—particularly via the local community college—in order to combat what it describes as a “vicious cycle” marked by “brain drain and reliance on employment that is dominated by backbreaking, low-wage and often dead-end work.”

Of course, by the standards currently in favor in the North Carolina General Assembly these days, even such modest recommendations as these are likely to be dismissed by some as “welfare.” At a time in which prominent conservatives deride public education as “government schools” and brag openly of their efforts to do away altogether with a core safety net program like unemployment insurance, support for any improvements to any public structures that aid people in need are a tough sell.

Happily and thankfully, however, the Poverty Fund team is unlikely to be daunted by any such resistance. Just as it has persisted in the face of conservative efforts to close its doors, it seems certain to keep telling the truth about poverty, identifying real world solutions and, if nothing else, driving those who would ignore our common responsibility for this scandal crazy.

Thank goodness.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.