Eric Frazier

GOP ignoring state’s main problem: rural and inner-city poverty

The shell of a building in downtown Lumberton, one of many struggling rural N.C. towns.
The shell of a building in downtown Lumberton, one of many struggling rural N.C. towns. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Nearly a year ago, 11 Democrats in the N.C. House filed what seemed a sensible bill.

Given that rural North Carolina is falling behind fast-growing, increasingly prosperous urban areas such as Charlotte and Raleigh, they called for the creation of a statewide task force to attack chronic poverty. They suggested spending $300,000 annually through 2017 to finance the panel’s work and to hire a staffer, as well as hire a poverty and economic prosperity czar in the governor’s office.

The response? The legislation went “to the graveyard of bills,” its lead sponsor, Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, told me Friday. The House’s GOP leaders “were not willing to do anything.”

All of which made Thursday’s meeting of a joint House-Senate committee on economic development infuriating or sad or both, depending on how you look at it.

Economic development consultant Ted Abernathy showed lawmakers maps detailing how average annual pay in all 100 N.C. counties stacks up against the 2014 state average of $44,969.

Average pay in the urban counties of Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, Orange and Forsyth runs 10 percent higher than the state average. Workers in all 95 other counties tend to make less than the state average.

Sara Nienow, a researcher in the General Assembly’s non-partisan Program Evaluation Division, told the legislators it has been 30 years – 30 years! – since the state last did a comprehensive study of chronically distressed communities. Neither the General Assembly nor the executive branch has a committee to address the problem, she said, and there are no clear state goals or strategy.

Among her recommendations? Create a statewide commission. Pretty much the same thing those 11 Democrats suggested last January. Instead, GOP lawmakers spent 2015 closing an anti-poverty think-tank and unsuccessfully trying to shift sales taxes from (Democratic voting) urban counties to (Republican voting) rural ones.

Hopefully, Thursday’s parade of depressing numbers reminds them that poverty is non-partisan. It snares Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites, city-dwellers and farmers.

I hope it also makes them question the conservative mantra that tax cuts always spark growth and bring jobs. If there’s a tax-cut fairy sprinkling magical employment dust on forgotten rural towns and inner-city blight, either her aim is terrible or I just can’t see it.

All I know for sure is that a lot of people are still struggling. Cutting their unemployment benefits and refusing to expand Medicaid didn’t help them. Neither will the higher sales taxes needed to offset the corporate and personal income tax cuts that mostly benefit the well-off.

The poverty problem remains squarely in front of the state’s GOP leadership. Whether they acknowledge it or not, it’s the biggest problem we have.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

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