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Time to forge comprehensive N.C. poverty plan

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

Few in North Carolina may remember or know of the North Carolina Fund. In 1963, it formed the centerpiece of the state’s comprehensive assault on poverty. It was a signature initiative of Gov. Terry Sanford, incorporating grass-roots efforts with public and private supports and strategies. It was the first project of its kind in the nation, and reportedly inspired President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and Congress’s approval of his 1964 anti-poverty measures.

A similar focus is needed to effectively tackle concentrated and generational poverty in North Carolina today. And like Sanford, Gov. Pat McCrory could take a leadership role in making it happen. Policies and strategies from the 1960s brought better education, job training, child tutoring, daycare and other economic development strategies to communities statewide and helped boost the prospects of millions of residents.

The state has made significant progress from those days, when 37 percent of the state’s residents had incomes below the federal poverty line. But today, in many parts of this state, conditions harken back to those of the 1960s.

More than 100 areas of the state have concentrated poverty (census tracts where poverty is 40 percent or more), double the rate it was a decade ago. And they aren’t just in rural counties. Concentrated poverty is located in 30 counties, including Mecklenburg.

Maybe most shameful is this state’s lack of resolve in tackling child poverty. Noted Laila Bell, of Action for Children North Carolina: “State investments in evidence-based programs and supports to help ease the detrimental effects of poverty for vulnerable children have declined.”

State investments are needed to effectively tackle growing poverty among adults and children in this state. But Mac Legerton, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Community Action in Lumberton, says a comprehensive approach is needed involving public and private entities and grassroots community participation. He should know. The CCA has been using that approach and succeeding in lifting people out of poverty.

“Solving poverty is not as complex as some make it out to be. Most communities just don’t provide all the solutions needed to have a major impact on poverty. The community might have one or two successful model programs but you need 15 to 20,” he said.

A comprehensive approach is necessary, says Legerton, because the causes of poverty have multiple roots involving individuals’ lives, families, communities, institutions, systems and cultures. Adequately addressing the issue requires attention to employment, education, life skills and balance, health care, housing, the environment, social support system and social equity.

CCA co-founder Donna Chavis agrees: “In this community, there is generational poverty, and it’s hard to break the cycle. But that’s where the systems come in. ... If you’re looking at the systemic issues that cause generational poverty, which are a lot; if you look at the inequities that cause the disparities, you’ve got a greater chance of breaking the cycle of generational poverty. In cases, where families got out of it, they addressed inequities.”

N.C. policymakers already have some places to look to for recommendations to tackle this matter. Three years ago, the Joint Legislative Study Commission on Poverty Reduction and Economic Recovery made a report to the N.C. legislature and recommended, among other things, expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), restoring earlier cuts to Medicaid which would have brought back 40,000 health-care jobs, expansion of prison education programs, improving housing programs, providing transportation services to rural areas (there is little or no public transportation in poor counties that need them the most) and creating more charter schools to provide more access to better schools.

Sadly, this year, lawmakers are rejecting some of those worthy suggestions.

And earlier this year, the North Carolina Community Action Association, a statewide association of largely federally funded nonprofits, offered additional recommendations including that state officials “invest in a short- and long-term poverty alleviation plan which is community-driven, results-oriented, comprehensive, and partnership-oriented.”

The UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity is also working on solutions, and urging better state policies to address the matter.

N.C. leaders need to forge a plan to tackle the problem of poverty in this state. And the rest of us must commit to doing our part as well. Too many people – including children – are hurting in our state. We should be ashamed to simply stand by and let them.

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