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Fighting N.C. poverty 50 years ago and today

This week a commemoration is being held that’s worth noting. It’s the observance of the 50th anniversary of the North Carolina Fund.

N.C. Gov. Terry Sanford launched the fund in 1963 with these words:

“In North Carolina, there remain tens of thousands whose family income is so low that daily subsistence is always in doubt. There are teens of thousands who go to bed hungry ... These are the children of poverty who tomorrow will become the parents of poverty.”

Tackling and ending that cycle was “what the North Carolina Fund is all about,” he said.

That was a daunting task in 1960s North Carolina. Close to 40 percent of N.C. residents had incomes below the poverty line, nearly twice the national average; half of all students dropped out of school before getting a high school diploma, and 25 percent of adults were functionally illiterate with a sixth-grade or less education.

It was also daunting because Sanford dared to connect the dots between race and poverty, and acknowledge that the future progress of the state depended on dealing forthrightly with both issues and providing access to opportunities to all N.C. residents – regardless of their backgrounds or what they looked like. The stakes for North Carolina were clear. Writing that North Carolina’s per capita income ranked an abysmal 42nd among states nationwide, Sanford made his case:

“The South badly needs new industry. But what manufacturers would expect to find a worthwhile market in an area where a large percentage of the population is on relief and likely to remain so? What space industry, which must compete mightily for physicists and engineers, would locate in a community ridden with hate and prejudice?”

With those business imperatives firmly in sight, Sanford set up a five-year statewide initiative to fight poverty. That structure would become the inspiration and model for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty program a year later. The Durham-based nonprofit fund was privately financed with grants totaling $9.5 million from the Ford, Z. Smith Reynolds, and Mary Reynolds Babcock foundations. It created projects in education, health, job training, housing, and community development setting up 11 community action agencies. During the summers of 1964 and 1965, black and white college students worked together as part of the North Carolina Volunteers Program, showing people that they could breach the barriers of race and class to solve problems and make communities stronger. The fund became a model for national programs such as Head Start and VISTA.

The N.C. Fund ended in 1968 and significant improvements did come to North Carolina. A year later, the U.S. Census showed North Carolina’s poverty rate had dropped to 20.3 percent – about half what it was in 1959. Many things contributed to that, including nationwide programs inspired by the North Carolina Fund.

Today, though, North Carolina faces another poverty crisis. The 17.2 percent N.C. poverty rate for 2012 recently released by the federal government is near the level N.C. poverty was when the N.C. Fund ended. That should disturb all of us.

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.

According to the N.C. Justice Center, more than 1.7 million North Carolinians are poor. Nearly 25 percent of N.C. workers earn less than the poverty threshold for a family of four – that was $22,811 in 2011. Most of the jobs created since the end of the recession have been in lower- paying services like food processing, retail and hospitality, and now account for 83 percent of employment in the state. Unemployed workers in this state outnumber jobs by 3 to 1. Additionally, North Carolina has one of the country’s highest levels of food insecurity. Nearly 1 in 6 households have difficulty putting food on the table.

These realities have been exacerbated by poor policy decisions of N.C. and federal lawmakers. Earlier this year, state lawmakers permanently cut unemployment benefits to jobless workers and rejected more than $700 million in federal funds for unemployment benefits for those facing long-term unemployment. State lawmakers also axed the state Earned Income Tax Credit, which is one of the state’s most effective anti-poverty tools that builds on top of the federal tax credit.

And this month, more than 1.7 million N.C. residents are seeing their food assistance benefits cut with the end of a temporary boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps). Children make up more than half the recipients – in this state 758,000, but 285,000 are older adults and people with disabilities, and more than 50,000 are veterans.

Sanford and others seized the moment 50 years ago to directly tackle the conditions of poverty that were hurting progress in the state and, as he so aptly noted, “crushing the spirit” of so many of the state’s residents.

Today, another moment has arrived for N.C. leaders to fight this invasive enemy. North Carolina should not be content with having the 10th highest poverty rate in the nation, and definitely not content to have the 10th highest child poverty rate. We don’t have to stand idly by.

Terry Sanford didn’t.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com
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