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N.C. poverty is real, grim and deserves attention

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor
Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.

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Not everyone will agree that the Moral Monday protests that have brought thousands to the state Capitol recently, and resulted in more than 350 arrests, are the right course to air grievances against policies of the N.C. legislature. Yet the protests are shining a light on something shameful in this state – a problem this legislature, and previous ones, have largely ignored: the dire condition of the state’s poor.

Indeed, last year when N.C. Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, declared (in trying to defend cutting pre-kindergarten programs) there was “no extreme poverty in North Carolina,” he highlighted the ignorance and misinformation too many N.C. lawmakers possess about the economic condition of many in the state. Not only that, he underscored this reality: The poor don’t really have a champion, or at least very effective ones, among the state’s policymakers.

But they should. It’s not only the right and moral thing to do. It’s the economically beneficial thing to do.

North Carolina has gone from having the 26th highest poverty rate in the nation a decade ago to having the 12th highest now. More than 1.7 million N.C. residents are poor – more people than the entire population of New Hampshire. And more than half a million of those poor are children – one out of every four children in the state.

Among minority children, the statistics are even worse: More than 40 percent live in poverty. That means two of every five children of color are living in poverty.

And 11.5 percent of North Carolina’s poor do live in extreme poverty. That’s 258,770 N.C. residents, Rep. Cleveland.

So Charlotte clergyman Jason Williams, who was arrested last Monday in the seventh week of protests, echoed a vital refrain when he declared: “We’re here to stand on the side of the poor...”

It’s in the best interests of all North Carolinians to improve the prospects for those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Enabling N.C. residents to feed, clothe and otherwise support their families should be a priority. Policies and strategies to tackle these issues, at the very least, should not make the situation worse for them. Poverty experts expect some legislative proposals and changes this year to do that.

Among the N.C. poor are people of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. And unlike the denigrating stereotype of being lazy and shiftless, most of the N.C. poor work – often times more than one job.

And though N.C. poverty “is strongly skewed by geography, or region of the state” as the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity noted in a 2010 report, poverty is troubling statewide. Eastern and far western parts of the state experience the most persistent poverty rates – rates as high as 30 percent in Robeson County. Such counties are dogged by generational poverty.

But the state’s “most intense, deep poverty,” according to Gene Nichol, the UNC center’s director, is in the middle of five urban areas: Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Greater numbers of those in extreme poverty live in these areas than anywhere else in the state. (The extreme poor live at or below 50 percent of the federal poverty level which is $23,550 for a family of four).

There are now more than 100 areas of concentrated poverty in the state, nearly triple the number in the year 2000.

Yet for the poor across the state – no matter their location – a bleak picture of their struggles is visible for those willing to see. Food pantries are overrun with requests for help; homeless shelters are seeing families by the droves.

And here are the truly invisible N.C. poor – for those living in more than 14,000 N.C. homes, there’s no indoor plumbing, nearly 10,000 have no source of heat and more than 170,000 have no phone. A year-long “Truth and Hope Poverty Tour” conducted statewide by the UNC work/poverty center and the N.C. NAACP has shown poor residents choosing between medicine and food, selling blood to pay high utility bills, sleeping in cars and under bridges.

These conditions won’t go away without N.C. leaders, and the rest of us, acknowledging their existence and working to change them. We ignore these conditions at our peril and to our continuing shame.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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