NC Budget and Tax Center, Poverty and Policy Matters

A look back at the historic North Carolina Fund that help shaped Johnson’s War on Poverty

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s State of the Union Address where he declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” As we all work to highlight the progress that has been made against poverty over the last half-century, it is important to acknowledge how the North Carolina Fund served as a template for President Johnson’s ambitious—and effective—national “War on Poverty” as well as the initiative’s own successes.

In that effort, below is an excerpt from “Everybody’s Problem”: Whites, Blacks, and the Fight Against Poverty in Eastern North Carolina, 1963-1969,” written by Karen M. Hawkins and currently under review with the University of Florida Press. On Wednesday, we’ll post a second excerpt from Ms. Hawkins’ book that will highlight the successful Manpower Program that was administered by the North Carolina Fund. This program targeted jobless workers in rural areas, and provided them with on-the-job training, direct job placement, employment counseling, and vocational guidance.

 The formation of the North Carolina Fund, November 1962-September 1963

Governor Terry Sanford publically announced the formation of the North Carolina Fund on the last day in September of 1963. In front of news reporters gathered in the capital city of Raleigh, Sanford introduced his broad plans to uplift the state’s poor by improvements in education, economic opportunities, living environment, and the general welfare.[i] Among the chief goals of his initiative was to help the state of North Carolina compete in a growing and technology-based national economy that was rapidly dependent on a well-educated work force. Just prior to the news conference, Sanford had underlined that his state, much like the nation as a whole, was experiencing “a time of plenty” of which “we have never enjoyed such prosperity…leisure, recreation, and the pleasures of the good life.” Yet, as Sanford clearly recognized, all was not well. Poverty had imposed severe restrictions on the lives and livelihood of approximately 450,000 North Carolinians in 1963. Most disturbing to the governor was how poverty “withers the spirit of children who neither imposed it nor deserve it” and who, without the means to break out, will tomorrow “become the parents of poverty.”[ii]

Governor Sanford made it clear that the North Carolina Fund would noticeably depart from old methods of dealing with poverty. For one, his program sought more sophisticated solutions beyond those of public and private relief payments, which he and many of the board of directors of the Fund saw as insufficient short-term remedies that did not address the roots of poverty. The North Carolina Fund was to be, as Sanford characterized it, the “first massive statewide effort in our country to find ways to break the cycle of poverty and dependency.”[iii] To those ends, Sanford envisioned a coordinated effort of organizations, government, and education to find ways to provide greater economic opportunities, through enhanced teaching methods in reading, writing, and math, as well as programs such as youth and adult job training, that “enable[ed] the poor to become productive, self-reliant citizens.” Despite being known as the “education governor,” Sanford understood that improving schools was not enough to help the poor succeed. As he explained, “A child who goes to school with no breakfast under his belt does not have equal opportunity to learn, excel, and move toward adulthood in which he will be able to use his talents and energies and intellect in a self-respecting role in society.” In the same vein, “neither does a child have an equal chance to learn if he happens to come from a home where reading is unknown and schooling underappreciated.”[iv]

Although it was Governor Sanford’s foresight and initiative that were largely behind the creation of the North Carolina Fund, the statewide antipoverty organization was formed as a private, non-profit, and self-governing entity, which stood outside the influence of the state legislature.[v] One of Sanford’s newest aides, John Ehle, had strongly suggested to the governor that he not depend on public sources to administer the programs of the Fund for the sheer reality that private money would afford Sanford greater freedom to attempt multiple and even unconventional strategies to tackle poverty that some fiscally conservative state lawmakers might not have favored funding.[vi] Among the philanthropic institutions that Sanford and his staff originally considered, the Ford Foundation resided at the top of the list. The Foundation was eager to finance community-based demonstration projects aimed at developing human resources in low-income areas.

As a moderate Democrat, Sanford distanced himself from the racially incendiary action and oratory that several southern governors such as George Wallace and Orval Faubus were commonly employing. Sanford’s more liberal views on race were reflected in the North Carolina Fund proposal through its open call for the involvement of the poor, including blacks, in the decision-making process of community action programs. The testimony of John H. Wheeler, a black banker from Durham and board member of the Fund, also went far in convincing the Ford staff that Sanford’s plans were sufficient in standing up to Jim Crow, which of course, had supplied a great deal of black poverty.[vii]A few weeks before the Ford Foundation announced its multi-million dollar commitment, Sanford had also received good news from two of the leading private foundations in North Carolina. In a combined gift of $2.5 million over five years, the Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary Babcock Foundations helped to supply the Fund with the local matching that the Ford grant required.[viii] The North Carolina Fund was ready to be launched.

Being the first statewide antipoverty program instituted in the nation, the North Carolina Fund was undoubtedly a historic creation. “North Carolina has been put on the map in a new way,” proclaimed a reporter from the Durham Sun. It was true; the Fund’s approach to ending poverty—“to call on the impoverished to help themselves rather than remain in poverty and receive public handouts”—never before had been done on such a broad scale.[ix] In a motion picture that the North Carolina Fund produced to publicize its creation, the narrator reiterated that “the Fund is not a welfare system” and is most concerned with “helping people help themselves.”[x] This notion that self-help was the best way to cure poverty continued to be celebrated as a major tenet of the North Carolina Fund philosophy, which served as both a statement of purpose and a means of winning over conservatives. To a degree, Fund staff would seek to facilitate individuals who qualified for welfare assistance get in touch with their local agencies, but this approach was a lesser component of the broad and multi-pronged assault on poverty that needed to be accomplished in the state. Indeed, one of the key components of the Fund’s battle plan was based on the relatively new idea that a community’s people, including members of the poor, best understood the community’s problems and, furthermore, that local ideas could carry results in defeating poverty.[xi]

This post is part of a blog series on poverty in North Carolina. Other posts in this series are available here and here.


[i] “Fund Directors Named,” News & Observer, July 19, 1963.

[ii] Quote from Governor Sanford on September 12, 1963 in “Three Years of Change: Narrative History of the North Carolina Fund,” folder 1, NCFR; “Gains in Jobs, Income Lift NC Consumer Buying Power,” Rocky Mount Telegram (Rocky Mount, NC), October 25, 1963.

[iii] Korstad and Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs, 88.

[iv]“Three Years of Change: Narrative History of the North Carolina Fund,” folder 1, NCFR.

[v] Sanford was also chosen to serve as the chairman of the board of the North Carolina Fund.

[vi] Korstad and Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs, 59. Sanford would, of course, rely on the cooperation of state agencies in administering the programs of the North Carolina Fund.

[vii] Korstad and Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs, 82.

[viii] Both the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Mary Babcock Foundation were charitable organizations founded and funded by the Reynolds tobacco family of Winston-Salem in 1936 and 1954, respectively.

[ix] Wilson Morgan, “North Carolina Fund Puts State on the Map,” Greensboro Record (Greensboro, NC), November 19, 1964.

[x] The North Carolina Fund [videorecording] : a new source of hope for the people of poverty ; The content of the Economic Opportunity Act, written by Billy E. Barnes, 1964, North Carolina Collection.

[xi] Korstad and Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs, 90.

One Comment

  1. Silence DoGood

    January 13, 2014 at 10:01 pm

    I just made an explanation of how to escape poverty and build wealth, for those interested. Any feedback would be much appreciated. Good luck.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVat9VBsSCg&feature=c4-overview&list=UUh3B6Znt_L6Ck3SbqVDc6eA