The North Carolina Fund Challenge: Poverty in the 1960s

To understand the history and work of the highly-esteemed North Carolina Fund, the scope and nature of poverty in North Carolina at that time is needed.

The 1959 U.S. Census found that 40.6 percent of North Carolina’s population was living in poverty, almost twice the national average and the second worst among South Atlantic states.  North Carolinians at that time earned some of the lowest industrial wages in the country, and nearly half left high school before obtaining a diploma. The combined effect of low-wages and low educational attainment was disastrous just as the state was experiencing the fall-out from increased automation and the resulting declining need for low-skilled workers in the factories.

As the economic transformation was beginning to take hold in North Carolina, Governor Sanford recognized that for the state to be competitive there was a need for policymakers to work to diversify the economy, improve public education, and reduce the reliance on low-wage industry.

But first, there remained a growing difference in the quality of life and access to opportunities of North Carolinians depending on where they lived. For many areas of the state, the mountains and eastern coast particularly, infrastructure was limited.  Water and sewer still hadn’t reached many communities in the mountains and roads to facilitate connections to jobs remained limited for more rural parts of the state.  And in urban communities too, the physical deterioration of housing and the concentration of poor families in poor neighborhoods—driven primarily by segregation—created the stark difference of economic experience.

The county-level poverty rates variedPoverty in 1959 by County from a low of approximately 22.9 percent in Forsyth County to a high of 74.3 percent in Greene County in 1959, as illustrated in the map below. Fifty-two of the state’s 100 counties were experiencing poverty rates above 50 percent, meaning more than 1 in 2 of North Carolinians living in these counties lived in poverty.

In 1963, Governor Sanford turned to the issue of the state’s high poverty levels in order to push for greater economic success for the state as a whole.  The North Carolina Fund was the result and its approach reflected the need for physical infrastructure and the development of human and social capital in communities so that viable pathways to the middle class could be established.

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